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Posts Tagged ‘Roberto Saccà’

R. Strauss’s experimental opera Ariadne auf Naxos’s complex creation is only an evidence of how difficult it is to encompass all the contrasting aspects of this work. And I am not speaking of the libretto – but of the many musical universes visited by the composer: operetta, Wagner, Italian opera, Strauss’s own symphonic language. He did not make it easy for singers either – but he had artists like Maria Jeritza, Lotte Lehmann, Margarethe Siems at his disposal. It is no wonder that the opera soon developed a tradition of stellar names identified with its leading roles. One speaks of Lisa della Casa’s, Gundula Janowitz’s, Jessye Norman’s Ariadne, of Rita Streich’s, Edita Gruberova’s Zerbinetta, Irmgard Seefried’s, Tatiana Troyanos’s Komponist, Rudolf Schock’s, Jess Thomas’s, James King’s Bacchus with some sort of awe. What I am trying to say is: thank God, the audience has been spoiled by the imprint of legendary singers in these roles – and the world’s most important opera houses generally try to cast performances of Ariadne auf Naxos accordingly. The Deutsche Oper could have done the same – but unfortunately it did not. And one cannot help but feeling disappointed. I know there were lots of people shouting bravo and repeated curtain calls, but let’s be frank: a great deal of the audience did not even know when one should applaud Zerbinetta after her aria… I am not trying to be snob – I am pleased to see that many are willing to give Richard Strauss a chance and all I can tell them: get any one of Karl Böhm’s recordings and you’ll REALLY see how much better this can be.

I have to make a proviso in what regard Jane Archibald’s Zerbinetta. She was announced ill, but sang nonetheless. The voice did sound as if she really had a bad cold (opaque and very restricted in volume) – so I’ll refrain from making comments. I will have to see her again to say something. I know Gruberova’s farewell to the role (at the age of 63) could not have showed her at her best, but once one sampled the sheer radiance and volume of that voice in that role, one is condemned to eternal disappointment after that.

I could have copy-pasted my comment on Michaela Kaune’s Ariadne from my previous writing about her: it has become some sort of sad experience to me. This is a singer who has all the right instincts about what she has to sing, but sabotaged by poor schooling it is always more about intentions than results. Although she had a high quote of false entries, unreliable intonation and even a note a bit lower than the one written by Strauss, this was nonetheless the best performance I have heard from her. She found a plausible solution for the very low notes, has a beautiful tonal quality and – again – knows Straussian style. But – and this is a big “but” – her high register is alarmingly unfocused, hollow-toned, un-legato-ish. It seems as if there were a very good singer up to a high e or f and than a clueless one above that note. After some while, the lack of focus prevailed and by the end, even the nymphs off-stage were covering her onstage. I hate to sound mean – but it is such a pity to witness a beautiful voice and natural musicianship wasted like that.

Ruxandra Donose’s composer did not fare really better – her mezzo always had a pleasant touch of smokiness, but now it is all about smokiness. She lacked tone, her low notes did not pierce through, her high notes were effortful and unconnected to the rest of the voice and she could not produce softer dynamics when required. Again, it was obvious that she knows how this part should sound and displayed very good diction and ease with the declamatory writing, but that is just the beginning.

With his round, free top notes, Roberto Saccà cannot help but being a convincing Bacchus. It is not the most beautiful voice of the world, but he clearly has the measure of this role and offered this evening’s best singing. The minor roles, on the other hand, have been quite well cast – a resonant, congenial Musiklehrer from Lenus Carlson, a fruity-toned Dryade from Katarina Bradic, a not entirely dulcet but awesome Harlekin from Simon Pauly, to name just a few.

This performance’s coup-de-grâce, however, was Jacques Lacombe’s awkward conducting. I don’t have a very good ear, but I found the strings in the opera’s “overture” poorly tuned. To make things worse, they produced a metallic, unvelvety sound throughout. Clarity did not make its entry this evening – it all sounded noisy, imprecise, unclear and reticent. For a while, Ariadne auf Naxos was my favourite opera by R. Strauss and it never ceased to move me. This evening, I kept my eyes on my watch.

Thank God Robert Carsen’s ingenuous production is unpretentious, efficient and entertaining for 75% of the opera. The idea of opening the auditorium to a rehearsal on stage and keeping the lights on while the prologue starts makes the mise-en-abyme of Hofmannsthal’s libretto comes strongly to the fore (and Matthias Bundschuh’s Haushofmeister was excellent). His handling of the comedy troupe is hilarious (wonderful acting from all involved, including Jane Archibald’s sexy Zerbinetta), but it seems he takes too much Zerbinetta’s point-of-view. Once she leaves the stage, ideas start to run short and the closing scene looks like school theatre.

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R. Strauss’s and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Die Frau ohne Schatten is a tour de force if there ever was one. It draws the line that separates men from boys and women from girls. If one has the intention to stage it or take part in a staging of this work, one must be more than prepared – one must be on the top of his or her game. Reading that the Deutsche Oper am Rhein has decided to stage it in the opera house in Duisburg, I must confess that the idea only seemed promising because an international team has been assembled. This is the kind of opera that cannot be assigned without consideration to ensemble singers, resident director and conductor.

I had seen only one staging by Guy Joosten before – a Roméo et Juliette at the Met, which was hardly earth-shattering, but, with a little help from the Met’s cash flow, beautiful enough. Not this FroSch, it looked downright cheap, poorly built, second-hand. Although Guy Joosten and his dramaturg, who must be his brother or something, seemed to have given a thought of two about the work and stated that the historical context of Hofmannsthal writing his fable in the context of WWI played a great role in their concept, what one sees on stage is so all-over-the-place that it is difficult to say anything. The set is basically a rotating black stadium tier – the upper part with the steps has a salvation-army bed which stands for the Emperor’s stately palace. It is only curious that under the tier, where Barak and his wife are supposed to live, there are purple and blue Arabian-Nights curtains everywhere. OK, this goes more of the less with the libretto and Barak is a dyer. But why then he wears a suit, drinks Budweiser, brings metallic gas balloons home when he is drunk (this Barak has a drinking problem…) and his brothers have a) a Mickey Mouse hat; b) a Chucky Doll mask and c) a Scream mask? Then there are too many examples of characters saying things that they are not doing: Barak and his wife have a long scene about him complaining about a broken mortar after she has warned him of a trespasser. But here he breaks nothing or does nothing at all. Besides a shrew, this Färberin sees things that do not exist. Joosten has seen pictures of dead people in WWI and everything is replaced by extras with bloodstained costumes. Is that all that he’s got? Unless he has given this production free of cost, the Deutsche Oper am Rhein has given away money of its limited budget for nothing. If Plato was right to say that necessity is the mother of invention, then she gave this production to adoption.

Although the Duisburger Philharmoniker (differently from the orchestra at La Scala) is a commited group of musicians, it is unfortunately not up to the herculean task imposed by Richard Strauss, especially the strings, which basically lacked tone throughout. When it has to produce a full sound, the result was often dry, sometimes awkward and often brassy. I was going to write that I would need to see Axel Kober conduct this work with a more seasoned orchestra before I said something, but then I’ve remembered that I did see him conduct FroSch last year in the Deutsche Oper. Although the results were far superior, they were not illuminating either. He does not master the sense of effect of a Karl Böhm and does not keep the proceedings going. The score finally seemed mechanical rather than complex.

Morenike Fadayomi has a rich-toned lyric soprano with some impressive resources: it is capable of heft, has easy top notes, floats adeptly in mezza voce and can keep a line with naturalness. Unfortunately these dramatic soprano (or even jugendlich dramatisch) emplois take her so often to her limits that one has some trouble to see how gifted she is. If she were singing Arabella or the Feldmarschallin rather than Salome or Aida, I bet she would be more of a household name, also because her acting skills are not negligible. As it is, although she acquitted herself quite well in the part trickiest moments, the sound was sometimes strained, sometimes squally, sometimes tremulous and hooty but for her rich-toned high notes. Although Linda Watson treaded carefully when the line took her above the stave and seemed entirely unconcerned in the interpretation department, she sang the role of the Färberin in her warm, spacious soprano without the stridence most singers display here. I would dare to say that her singing of the act 3 duet stands among the smoothest and most lyrical I have ever heard. Susan Maclean seemed not to be in her best voice and the comedy approach required from her robbed her performance of some of its incisiveness. That said, she has the measure of this role vocally and interpretatively. She finds no problem with the difficult writing, handles the text intelligently and produces both powerful chest notes and dramatic acuti at will. The semaphoric gestures, obvious in an almost childish way, chosen by the director are quite annoying, but Maclean showed her professionalism on performing them with miraculous conviction.

As in Zürich, Roberto Saccà’s tenor is far from ingratiating, but he sounds almost comfortable with the high-lying and exposed phrasing of the role of the Emperor. His flowing phrasing in the most strenuous passages is indeed praiseworthy. Tomasz Konieczny sang powerfully as Barak, but his metallic, tightly focused voice basically lacks the necessary warmth and roundness in this role. Maybe because the sound is so forward and driven, he found problem in softening when the composer required gentler dynamics. As I feared, the bad-guy voice that made his thrilling Alberich so intense was not his Alberich-voice, but basically his voice. As the director did not seem to know what to do with Barak (beside the drinking problem), Konieczny sometimes seemed a bit lost on stage too. Finally, James Bobby’s forceful, dark-toned Geisterbote deserves to be mentioned. A name to keep.

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Die Frau ohne Schatten is arguably Richard Strauss’s most formidable score, composed to Hugo von Hofmannstahl’s most complex libretto, the symbolism of which is almost awkward in its multiple levels. Magic opera, psychological drama, myth, social analysis… there is plenty to choose in it. To make things more difficult, the music is some sort of Straussian showcase – from the multicolored chamber music atmosphere of Ariadne auf Naxos to the all-together-now hysteria of Elektra. That operatic Goliath does not seem to have intimidated Zürich’s small but brave opera house, though.

Although director David Pountney believes that the work is about the discovery of one’s own humanity, he seems to focus his staging on the social disintegration caused by the exploitation of working class in the early day of capitalism, more of less Hofmannsthal’s lifetime. Thus, the story is set on the decline of the Habsburg monarchy. While the Emperor and the Empress are here shown as k. u. k. aristocrats, Barak and his wife are proletarians in a sewing workshop. The Nurse is a key  figure in this context, since she is portrayed as something like a less fortunate relative who depends on her patrons’ favors (therefore, her interest in the Empress comes through more like self-interest than in other stagings). The magic elements of the plot are not abandoned, however. The surrealistic aesthetics of Max Ernst serve as inspiration to dream-like costumes and sets. Many ideas come through quite effectively, such s the play-in-the-play seduction of the Dyer’s Wife, where the Amme literally stages the poor woman’s romanesque fantasies (it is truly amazing how the music fits this concept), but many a detail ultimately seem unintentionally comical, such as the ballet-dancer falcon (why people feel that they have to bring the “voice of the falcon” to the stage?) or the walking dolls cloaked in white who are supposed to be the Ungeborene… If the many imaginative touches do not make an unforgettable experience, poor direction of actors is to blame. The cast did not seem comfortable with what they had to do and most scenes gave the impression of a routine followed with little conviction and almost no coherence: the tenor’s approach was stand-and-deliver, the baritone offered naturalistic acting and both sopranos seemed entirely lost. Only the mezzo seemed to invest the stylized acting required from her.

Franz Welser-Möst similarly eschewed any larger-than-life quality in his reading. The Opernhaus Zürich has a small auditorium and its orchestra is used to produce leaner sounds. Moreover, the conductor professes that Straussian style should involve lighter textures over which the text can still be easily followed by the audience. Let’s call it the “Cosi-fan-tutte golden rule”. I have to confess that I took some time to adjust to the undernourished orchestral sound, especially in what regards the string section. There was transparence in plenty, but the fact that the sound never ever blossomed even in the orchestral interludes finally robbed the music of a great deal of its impact. The end of act I sounded particularly deprived of substance. That could be overseen, if volume had been replaced by accent (as Marc Minkowski has showed us in his performance of R. Wagner’s Die Feen at the Théâtre du Châtelet), but, alas, the lack of forward movement and a sameness in what regard phrasing all in favor of orchestral polish finally suggested overcautiousness. The Mozartian poise had its advantages – a particularly clean ensemble in the difficult act II closing scene – but I am not really sure if this is how FroSch should sound.

The role of the Kaiserin is a bit high for Emily Magee, who had to chop her phrases too often to prepare for the next dramatic high note. However, her creamy soprano is a Straussian instrument by nature and, even when tested, she never produced a sour note during the whole opera. Jenice Baird was a puzzling Färberin. I have never heard her in such good voice – she really sang the part in her rich vibrant dramatic soprano, but seemed to be sleepwalking in the interpretative and dramatic departments. Her rather slow delivery of the text drained the Färberin music of all its bite. Although Birgit Remmert was quite overparted as the Amme, the size of the hall helped her to produce the right effect in this role. She has spacious low notes, clear declamation and, even if her top register is a bit strained, that did not prevent to produce some firm acuti. I know: Roberto Saccà’s voice is ugly, but I must say that I have never listened to anyone sing this part with such flowing lyricism, nuance and ringing top notes before. He almost convinced me that the role should be cast with jugendlich dramatisch voices. Michael Volle was extremely well cast as Barak – his spacious baritone is extremely pleasant on the ear and he sang sensitively throughout.

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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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