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Posts Tagged ‘Semperoper Dresden’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why cannot Max hit his mark anymore? The explanation in the libretto is that Kaspar had him on a spell. OK. Next question: why cannot Kaspar suffer Max and Agathe’s prospects of happiness? Countertenor-turned-stage-director Axel Köhler gives us the obvious answer: post-traumatic stress disorder. Max and Kaspar fought at the Thirty Years’ War, a particularly gruesome conflict that led to devastation, famine and disease. While Max had found hope in his love for Agathe and is understandably uncomfortable with a gun in his hand, Kaspar is a prisoner of battlefield terror and is resentful of having his ex-comrade in arm’s possibility of redemption. In this staging, the war is just over: all sets are ruins, people are clearly edgy and the Wolfschlucht scene does not need supernatural horrors: the memory of what had just happened is far more frightening. The concept is all right coherent, clear and often revelatory, but it is somewhat superficially represented in the Personenregie. Moreover, the anachronistic costumes jar against the Rolf-Liebermann-opera-movie sceneries. Those who have first discovered this opera in Carlos Kleiber’s DGG studio recording would have some trouble in recognizing the same orchestra this evening under the baton of Christian Thielemann. While Kleiber, Jr., had the Staatskapelle Dresden sizzle in bright sonorities and fast tempi, Thielemann works on a dense orchestral sound, his interpretation made from large brushstrokes and focused on contrast of atmosphere, with transitions heavily underlined. With the glamorous help of the Staatskapelle, success was guaranteed: the Wunderharfe’s rich velvety strings enveloped the vigorous brass-and-drums approach, the Semperoper’s uniquely warm acoustics offered an almost Bayreuthian glow and the Sächsische Staatsopernchor sang heartily. The conductor proved to be very kind to his singers, cushioning their voices in rich yet not overwhelming accompaniment in their arias – in return he kept them in tight rein in more rhythmically exacting passages. In her Kiri-Te-Kanawa-like plush lyric soprano, Sara Jakubiak has an ideally appealing voice for the role of Agathe. She sang with affection, sensitivity and good taste. If she wasn’t completely successful, this has to do with perfectible German (and I am not talking about the dialogues) and the fact that she sounds fazed when the least flexibility is required from her (as in the end of Leise, leise). In long, poised lines, she was always in her element and offered a touching Und ob die Wolke. I would be curious to hear her as Arabella. Christina Landshamer (Ännchen) sounds a bit out of sorts in both ends of her range, but other than this sang with charm, spirit and spontaneity. Michael König took a while to warm and could not make much of his aria. He made some beautiful tonal shading in his trio with Agathe and Ännchen, but the tone was too often too open and a bit nasal. It must be challenging to sing Kaspar in the theatre where Theo Adam built the “golden standard” for this role, but Georg Zeppenfeld, maybe as a preparation for his upcoming ambitious Heldenbariton venture (yes, Wotan…), more than met the challenge. This was a truly exciting performance: the voice firm and dark over the complete range, the text crispy and clear, the dramatic intentions perfectly understood and rendered, the dialogues exemplarily handled, the acting fully mastered. Bravo. In comparison, Andreas Bauer’s Hermit sounded quite woolly and prosaic. Adrian Eröd had no problem with the high tessitura of the role of Prince Ottakar, Albert Dohmen was an imposing Kuno, Sebastian Wartig took the limited opportunity offered by the role of Killian to show an interesting voice and real acting talent and all bridesmaids were competently cast.

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Like Malvina and Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Eva-Maria Westbroek and Frank van Aken are singers taking the roles of Isolde and Tristan who happen to be married. This is not their first joint Wagnerian venture: they have, for instance, sung the roles of Siegmund and Sieglinde in Frankfurt, New York etc. He has sung the role of Tristan before at least in Frankfurt in 2011; she has sung her first Isolde last September in La Coruña and it seems she is scheduled to sing it in Bayreuth in the near future. These performances in Dresden are their first together in this opera. As this production is 8 years old and the Staatskapelle Dresden’s chief conductor Christian Thielemann did not find the opportunity to conduct it enticing enough, the Van Akens are supposed to be this revival’s selling feature.

I have to confess that I was not dying to see either of them. I had seen him only once as Siegmund in La Scala in a bad night and, since I first saw her as a compelling Cassandre in Amsterdam, I have found her less and less interesting. Maybe low expectation has done the trick this time, for this evening proved to be “educational”. I’ll start by saying that Isolde happens to be a good career decision for the Dutch soprano. Although there is a lot to be developed here, I found it far less univocal than her Sieglindes. Act I was actually surprising in how consistently she managed the dramatic vocalità: the voice was at once voluminous, rich, powerful in her acuti and more or less functional in the lower reaches. Also, she seemed readier to soften her tone and produced two or three soaring examples of mezza voce. Act II caught her a bit out of steam though. The voice sounded clearly smaller, she shortened some high notes and had her straight/strained moments. However, in the Liebesnacht, when her husband began to sound ill-at-ease with the lyrical writing, she regained her strength and was able to produce a feminine, sensuous tonal quality. Her final appearance was a bit rough, but – this may seem funny – she produced the best last phrase in the Liebestod I have ever heard in a theatre (it is curious how that last note usually sounds flat or thin or unsupported or a combination of all those).  All these problems could have been overlooked, if there had been a more noticeable interpretation going on here. As it was, her diction is not very clear, she is not very responsive to the text and she is often heavy-handed in what regards phrasing. In the end, she is a singer singing the notes Wagner wrote to the part of Isolde. She is sometimes convincing when she has to portray fury, but not much beyond that. Of course, experience will add depth to her performance, but experience needs a starting point to develop from.

Van Aken is far more engaged dramatically than his wife. Although his whole method turns around roughness, his voice is unmistakably heroic in its powerful and incisive high notes. He is a trouper and tries everything – even nuance, although this often challenged his ability to keep his voice focused and placed. Act II was his most problematic – legato is not his best friend and trying to rein in his voice often brought about flutter and some nasality. He is not a man who gives up – act III used up his last ounce of energy and, whenever you would think that he was helplessly tired, he would conjure everything he still got to produce some powerful notes over the orchestra. The whole thing was a bit exhausting to watch, but worked somehow as a dramatic point.

Christa Mayer was a commendable Brangäne. Her soft-centered, velvety mezzo is very pleasant and clean. If she could produce a little bit more “mystery” in her calls from the tower in act II, she would have left nothing to be desired in this role. Christoph Pohl is a very handy guy – whenever you need a last-minute replacement, he is there. This evening, he sang a very clean, firm-toned and stylish Kurwenal. As King Marke, Georg Zeppenfeld displayed rock-solid vocalism: his bass was thoroughly big, rich, firm and powerful. Although this was impressive enough, the lack of variety in his singing made it all sound grandiosely boring, I am afraid.

When you have the Staatskapelle Dresden and the ideal acoustics of the Semperoper, it is very difficult for a conductor to fail in Tristan and Isolda. The Wunderharfe’s unique blend of richness and flexibility makes it impossible for one to be indifferent to Wagner’s music – it has such presence and clarity that you almost feel that you don’t need anything else. And Maestro Ascher Fisch has a very clear musical mind, keeping this music as transparently organized as one could wish and showing great skill in knowing the right moment when it is more important to fill the hall with sound while not making his singers sound unnecessary. However, as much as everything this evening, the thrill was not really there. The feeling, the idea, the dramatic impulse behind a crescendo, behind a flexible beat, behind elastic sense of pause were not there, although you could hear all those effects in their most abstract manner. This was particularly bothersome when the conductor adopted a slower tempo for more verbose passages in which a singer was not doing much in terms of interpretation. Later on, the conductor seemed to have realized that this was not working and act III, for instance, had sometimes a let’s-move-on feeling.

As for Marco Arturo Marelli’s production, it goes with this performance’s character. It is decorative in a very abstract way. What you get is what you see – you don’t get much, but you don’t get very much bothered about that either.

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