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In its yearly Wagner offering, the Tokyo Spring Festival goes a step further in its Ring cycle conducted by Marek Janowski featuring international casts (some singers from Janowski’s Wagner series recorded live in the Philharmonie in Berlin appear here too) with two concert performances of Die Walküre. In order to add some theatrical flavor to the proceedings, video projections depicting the sets for each act are shown, although none of these images are remotely as expressive as Waltraud Meier’s face.

The German mezzo, in excellent voice this afternoon, has adapted her Sieglinde to her present lighter-voiced self, building a particularly vulnerable and touching character, especially in act III when she thanks Brünnhilde for saving her life with palpable sense of awe and fervor. Without any doubt, I would call this the best Sieglinde I’ve heard from her in recent years. It was also fortunate that Catherine Foster too was in great shape, offering here a Brünnhilde more smoothly and sensitively sung rather than either in Bayreuth or in Berlin. Elisabeth Kulman’s Fricka is a lesson in how building a dramatic performance with a lyric voice: her mezzo is ideally focused in every register; the crystal-clear diction and the rhythmic accuracy make for unfailing incisiveness; and she handles the text with imagination and intelligence. Robert Dean Smith is, as always, a light Siegmund, with ideal legato and dynamic variety, but some might miss some radiance in his high notes. Egils Silins is a vocally unproblematic yet monochromatic and not truly subtle Wotan. In Sung Sim is a powerful and dark-toned Hunding. The team of Japanese valkyries was rather irregular, especially among the lower-voiced singers.

Maestro Janowski led a forward-moving and rhythmic alert performance that responded competently to some practical problems: a fast account of Wotan’s big act II monologue to compensate for a not particularly expressive soloist, for example. He demanded everything from the NHK Symphony Orchestra, which, inspired by Rainer Küchl’s ad hoc activity as spalla, worked hard for a bright, focused sound à la Vienna Philharmonic. These musicians produced some praiseworthy passagework in the end of act I, but the strife for clarity in the Walkürenritt ultimately brought about an impression of disjointedness. At some point, one could feel a sense of exhaustion, but giving up was fortunately never an option this afternoon. This performance only confirms the NHK SO’s Wagnerian potential still to yield interesting results as this ring cycle progresses.

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Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is an opera often described as metaphysical, profound, transcendental and musicians and members of the audience often approach it with extreme reverence, often trying to frame their experience of the opera itself by a priori concepts rather than by the experience itself. Not today – my neighbours this evening behaved as if they were watching an adventure film in the movie theatre. A couple next to me seemed to have found it highly entertaining – they even laughed of the Liebestod. When I was going to get angry, I realized that the fact that they were watching it under a completely different light (even if bothersome and disrespectful one) made me realize that someone else – and a very important one – seemed to be seeing the whole thing with fresh eyes and ears. And this was veteran conductor Peter Schneider.

I had seen Maestro Schneider conduct this work in Bayreuth and praised his flexible beat and the beauty of the orchestral sound. On reading what I wrote then, I cannot help noticing that it has nothing to do with this evening, when the conductor seemed to have taken everything at face value: there was no concerns of producing important sounds, of manipulating tempo to produce gravitas or of adding any kind of profoundness. On the contrary, he kept a very regular beat that could give the impression that he could relax more either in exciting or meditative moments, his orchestra produced distinctively bright sounds in the string section and never overshadowed the other sections, his approach was built towards very clean, singing lines of accompanying figures that shared with the soloists the same degree of importance. Since we are talking about Wagner, the accompanying figures – although played with nearly Donizetti-ian flavor – are almost invariably Leitmotive and their variation. That made this evening revelatory in terms of structural clarity. Also, the house orchestra’s playing had an urgency that sometimes tampered with polish, but kept you in the edge of your seat in a Marth Argerich-ian way, especially in passages where the violins were able to showcase outstanding flexibility. As a result, the performance – in its lack of austerity – often seemed blunt in its obstinate forward-movement, its Verdian glittery passageworks, its almost bombastic succession of chords attacked straight-to-the-matter. As the soloists too seemed determined to avoid venerability and had almost all of them very clear diction, many scenes sounded quite new to me shorn of their dignified grandeur. This evening, Isolde’s indignation in act I had more than a splash of whim and Brangäne’s selflessness something of meddling for her own amusement; Tristan’s obscure musings in act II sound less philosophical than testosterone-ridden. If I give the impression that this made the story more superficial, do not mistake my words: I’ve found it quite refreshing to see these characters more realistic in their motivations in a storyline almost devoid of action.

This is the first time I could see Violeta Urmana in a complete performance as Isolde. I’ve heard a broadcast from Rome long ago and saw her sing act II in a concert with the Berliner Philharmoniker and have found her one of the most interesting singers in this role these days. She was announced indisposed and took almost the entire first act to warm up and, even after that, had to carefully negotiate some high-and-loud passages, but she hasn’t disappointed me. First, there is some almost Italianate vocal glamour in her performance: the low and medium registers are warm and fruity, she is capable of legato and soft attack in lyric passages and the edge on her acuti (which can be bothersome in recordings) do help her to pierce through when the orchestra is really loud. Second, although she is not a terrific actress, she has studied this role with unusual attentiveness – she clearly knows her words, has an opinion about her character and portrays all that with both the verbal specificity of a Lieder singer and the attitude of someone who has sung roles like Norma or Aida. Third, she is bien deans sa peau in this role, which she portrays with sensuousness and femininity. This is really more than we can say about most Isoldas.

Her Tristan was Robert Dean Smith, whom I had seen in this part in Bayreuth, also with Peter Schneider. There, the acoustics helped him a lot. This evening, the lack of squillo in his high register sometimes made him inaudible amidst an unleashed Vienna State Orchestra. The role is still very distant to his personality, but this production makes his work harder to see to this problem. The results are not entirely convincing, but – in the context of this performance – this vulnerable, young-sounding Tristan makes particular sense. Especially when he sings so musically and with absolute technical security (his breath is impressively long, to start with).

The role of Brangäne is on the heavy side for Elisabeth Kulman, but she is a smart singer with solid technique and by unfailing focus, crystalline diction and dramatic imagination produced a compelling performance. Matthias Goerne too finds the role of Kurwenal heavy for his voice. However, differently from Ms. Kulman, his whole method is incompatible with Wagnerian singing. In the rare lyrical moments in the part, he provides beauty of tone and sensitive phrasing, but he is often hectoring and producing white-toned high notes. Last but not least, Albert Dohmen – in spite of a rusty tonal quality – produced a far more varied and touching performance as King Marke than I could have expected, considering the last times I saw him.

There is not much to speak of David McVicar’s highly stylized and very superficial staging. I dislike the choreographed seamen but find the rest quite harmless in their basic colors and unobtrusiveness. However, although the production dates from 2013, it seems that the Personenregie is sometimes already lost. There were moments when these singers had not much idea of why they were doing what they were supposed to do and felt therefore free to do their thing. Fortunately, their “thing” often worked well this evening

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Tannhäuser is the last Wagner opera that Marek Janowski and the RSB are presenting in the Philharmonie before they tackle the Ring. Other than the Ring, it was probably also the only non-Ring opera that Janowski recorded on studio (albeit incomplete, as the soundtrack for Istvan Szabo’s movie Meeting Venus – Kiri Te Kanawa’s only Wagner recording, if you don’t count the Waldvogel in Haitink’s Siegfried or one Blumenmädchen in Solti’s Parsifal). It has been a while since then, which now is going to be an interesting pendant to the live recording  made this evening – while the 1993 release (with the Philharmonia Orchestra) presented the point of view of “Tannhäuser as fully mature Wagner”, the concert this evening showed it still enveloped in a post-Weberian atmosphere (or maybe it it is because I have seen Das Liebesverbot only this week…) – with lean, bright orchestral sonorities, cleanly articulated strings, an a tempo-approach to rhythms and an almost objective interpretation: no manipulation of dynamics, tempi or phrasing to create momentum. Each act developed spontaneously and naturally to their climactic final ensembles. These choices fit the RSB’s natural sound (which is not German-style beefy in itself). It is a pity, though, that the French horns were not in their best shape this evening. The Rundfunkchor Berlin was a strong feature this evening, especially the men. I just wonder why nobody wants to perform the “Paris” version anymore – I really don’t care if it does not really “matches” the rest of the opera. It is MARVELOUS music and I cannot understand why a conductor wouldn’t want to perform it.

Although Nina Stemme’s voice is a bit too mature for the virginal Elisabeth, she proved to master the ability of producing large-scaled Innigkeit, suggesting the necessary vulnerability in clean phrasing and aptly controlled fervor. She was also in splendid voice – full, warm and naturally voluminous. It is doubly regrettable that the “Paris” version was not used this evening, for Marina Prudenskaya would certainly be more than capable of tacking the extra challenge. I have heard her before only in small roles – and did not know the full extension of her voice. Her big, dark yet focused and ductile mezzo is entirely at home in Wagner – she does not need to force and phrases with homogeneity and elegance. If her interpretation is still a bit unspecific, this is only because she needs a bit more experience in the repertoire. And I am sure that there won’t be lack of opportunities for that – I cannot think of anyone else around closer to the physique du rôle in the operatic stages . The third female singer in the cast did not let down either – Bianca Reim has the ideal voice for the Shepherd, clear, pure and almost boyish.

Replacing an indisposed Torsten Kerl (who isn’t these days?!), Robert Dean Smith displayed amazing technical security and musicianship. It is a pity that his tenor lacks squillo in its higher register (what made him a bit inaudible in ensembles), but that it is the only thing one could complain about this evening. He  sang with unfailing good taste, flowing quality, crystalline diction and breathtakingly long breath. The fact that the role is not very close to his personality – I am afraid that there is not an ounce of wildness in someone one would rather describe as debonair – even made me rethink the role of Tannhäuser. This evening, there was no revolutionary artist trying fighting the establishment, but rather a harmless, heart-on-sleeve fellow who is suddenly told he is a sinner even without understanding exactly why. In this sense, the contrast to Christian Gerhaher’s extremely mannered Wolfram also worked as a dramatic point. This German baritone has a very beautiful voice and I know that I am alone in my opinion here, but I find annoying the way he sings without any legato, stressing this and that syllable, singing some notes unsupported and white toned or, when more energy is required, hectoring his way along in end-of-career Fischer-Dieskau-ian style. Fortunately, the Abendstern song prompted him to let the music speak for itself, and the result couldn’t be better: this was one of the highlights of this evening. Although there were rusty patches in Albert Dohmen’s singing, he was in far better voice than last time I saw him in Lohengrin and offered a very commendable performance . Finally, Peter Sonn was a very secure and forceful Walther. His is an interesting voice – but he could benefit from a more liquid, round-toned, natural phrasing.

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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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I know Christoph Marthaler’s Tristan und Isolde from DVD and was not really excited about seeing it live. Maybe low expectations have done the trick for me. I still dislike the production – it is so minimalistic than it is even difficult to hate it. If the director could have stripped the staging from every superfluous detail and concentrated on powerful symbols, maybe the emptiness could have meant something. As it is, we have a DDR-style building that goes one floor lower for each act. All effects are restricted to fluorescent lamps (actually neon lamps) that are turned on and off or twinkle or whatever a regular lamp can do, which is not much. Costumes end on having a very important role – other than chairs and then a quite fancy hospital bed, there is nothing on stage. In act I, Tristan, Isolde and Brangäne are dressed like old people; in act II, they are dressed like middle-age people in the style of the 60’s; and in act III, they have younger people’s clothes in a quite contemporary taste. Kurwenal’s only “costume” involves a kilt and the King Marke has a suit and an overcoat. Why? It must be important, but I don’t feel like investigating. What I was curious to know is why the stage action is so awkward and why the director felt it important to have his cast often act in a way that evidently does not fit their personalities. With her attitude and voice, Irène Théorin looks often unintentionally funny in her coy manners, while Robert Dean Smith is not naturally heroic either in voice or in attitude.

In any case, veteran Peter Schneider proved that experience counts when you are conducting in Bayreuth. I won’t make a suspense – this was certainly one of the best performances I have listened to on the Green Hill and one of the best in my experience with this opera. Schneider is rather a Kapellmeister than a “creative” conductor, but today he has proved that faithfulness, if allied to virtuoso quality, does pay off. This evening Tristan sounded exactly as it should: the orchestral sound generously filled the hall without any loss in transparency and an extra serving of depth and beauty, truly deluxe sound; Schneider’s beat proved to be extremely flexible, taking its time when gravitas was required and flashing along where excitement was the keyword; and, to make things better, transitions were naturally and consequently handled. Although he did not spare his singers, Schneider knew the best way to balance stage and pit without ever damaging the building of climax. This was truly honest, efficient and truthful music-making.

Irène Théorin is evidently not a vulnerable Isolde, but rather ranks along Birgit Nilsson among the imperious Irish princesses who are more comfortable giving vent to their fury than mellowing in tenderness. Unlike Nilsson’s, her middle range might be a bit grainy and tremulous, but is always ready to shift into mezza voce. Predictably, act I was her strongest, in spite of a lapse or two during her Narration. Act II showed her first quite unfocused, but then she sang her Liebesnacht entirely in demi-tintes and blending perfectly to her Tristan. Unfortunately, act III was not a development from that. I suspect this was not one of her good-voice days, but still lots of very impressive moments. Michelle Breedt is a light Brangäne with firm, bright top notes and tonal variety. Robert Dean Smith is a sui generis Tristan – rather jugendlich dramatisch than dramatic, 100% musicianly, subtly phrasing in pleasant legato in an almost bel canto manner. Although the role takes him to his limits, he never indulges in forcing his tone, but rather lets his voice spin and acquire momentum in the trickiest passages. Naturally, act III exposes his lightness, but one must never forget: he sang it to the end without ever showing fatigue or any ugliness. He won’t probably ever sing the role in a theatre like the Met, but he is certainly worth the detour if you want to hear a fresh-sounding tenor as Tristan. Jukka Rasilainen was a most solid Kurwenal, but Robert Holl – in spite of a beautiful voice and sensitive phrasing – had his rusty moments as King Marke. I must mention Arnold Bezuyen’s Shepherd too, truly beautifully sung.

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When reviewing Janowski’s Parsifal with the RSB, I have written that clarity above richness of sound seemed to define the conductor’s approach to Wagner, especially if one has his recording of the Ring with the Staatskapelle Dresden in mind. Well, this evening proves that Janowski’s Wagnerian abilities are more varied than I thought. Maybe because Die Meistersinger is notoriously long and massive, the conductor might have hought that a little orchestral glamour could be helpful. And his musicians did not hang fire. The overture alone was worth the expensive ticket price – full orchestral sound without any loss of structural transparence and flexibility. Then the Rundfunkchor Berlin happened to be in top form. The evening had a promising start.

I had never seen this opera in concert version and never realized until this evening how much of a challenge it is to balance a big orchestra on stage and roles meant for lighter voices in many conversational passages, often in the middle register of singers’ voices. Janowski took the decision of not sacrificing his orchestra and allowed singers to be heard over it by a very small margin. In the end of act I, for example, instead of giving the tenor the opportunity to shine in Fanget an! , he would rather give pride of place to the sensuous ebb and flow of string sounds in a way that made me rethink the whole scene. Act II never sounded so organic, with the difficult transitions spontaneously and coherently handled. If I had to make any observation, this would regard the last scene, the “on stage” band could be a little bit subtler and more integrated with the main orchestra. I am tempted to say that the more “intimate” passages could have a bit more Innigkeit and less objectivity and forward-movement, but then I am not sure if we had this kind of cast this evening.

My first and foremost vocal interest this evening was Edith Haller’s Eva. I saw her Gutrune and Sieglinde in Bayreuth last year and found her simply outstanding. My first impression this evening was that her interpretation was too much about minauderie. Her Eva was desperately little-woman-ish, piping and pecking at notes old-Viennese style. One would have never believed she sings roles like Elsa or Sieglinde. Eventually I would start to suspect that she was simply not in good voice – some high notes were a bit sharp and often fixed and unflowing. Of course, she still has a lovely voice and had no problem piercing through the orchestra, but I will really have to hear her Eva again to say something about it. Michelle Breedt was a very charming Magdalene, supple and warm-toned. Robert Dean Smith has the right voice and personality for the role of Stolzing. He sings with exemplary legato, real feeling for the words and good taste. His high g’s and a’s could be a bit ampler and brighter, but were round and easy nonetheless. I have seen more flexible and varied Davids than Peter Sonn, but I confess I like his straight-to-the matter ways with the role. Thank God he is no tenorino, while the voice is warmer than the usual Spieltenor’s as well. Dietrich Henschel’s unfocused and often rough Beckmesser made one wonder why one would consider that Meistersinger-level. Albert Dohmen’s bass-baritone sounds too heavy and sometimes effortful in his high notes as Hans Sachs. The tone is not really noble, but the voice is large and he is able to keep clear articulation for more declamatory passages and even soften for one or two key moments. But the results were too often Wotan-like in a role where congeniality is important. Georg Zeppenfeld was an efficient Pogner, but Matti Salminen’s cameo as the Nachtwächter showed up his younger colleagues’ less classically Wagnerian voices.

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