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Posts Tagged ‘Semyon Bychkov’

Although what we use to call the ”Paris” version of Wagner’s Tannhäuser is usually seen as stylistically uneven in comparison to a more homogeneous ”Dresden” version, I have no doubt in my preference for the ballet music and a more ambitious Venusberg scene. Does it makes some of act 2 seem too well-behaved? Well, it does – but this is too small a price to pay for the more sensuous and sophisticated music Wagner wrote later  – and the Royal Opera House made the right decision in opting for it.  The problem is that the more complex Venusberg scene requires a difficult choreography for the bacchanale and a more psychologally elaborate character development for both Venus and Tannhäuser. And I do not believe that the Royal Opera House could provide that in its new staging.

Tim Albery’s nondescript production probably tried not to displease anyone and ended on not pleasing anyone. The liberties taken with the libretto and its stylized visuals suggest a Regie staging, but it does not bring any kind of ”reading” to the story. The Royal Opera House program publishes some texts about artists and excesses and about ”gated communities”, but their relation to the staging is more hinted at then intimately related to it. The sets are basically variations on the theme of the Royal Opera House curtains. They are in perfect shape at the Venusberg,  are replaced by a tree to depict the fields where Tannhäuser sees the pilgrims, then they return as partially ruined for act 2 and are finally shown as entirely ruined in act 3.  I can remember these ideas from a couple of productions I have seen this year – Stefan Herheim’s Parsifal for Bayreuth, for example. However, if Albery found inspiration in Herheim, he limited it to the sceneries. I could not find a coherent approach in this Tannhäuser other than what clearly meant in Wagner’s libretto.  The shepherd as a projection of the young Tannhäuser – that could be  interesting, but it comes and goes without further development (and I guess I have seen that in Herheim’s Parsifal too…). Showing the Landgraf’s noble guests as a  ”gated community”-meeting of armed vigilantes seems a pointless inference when Venus is seen a vamp in a sexy gown purring on a white bed (both in acts 1 and 3), Elisabeth as a girl in white lace and a veil, Tannhäuser as a guy in a suit and Wolfram as… another guy in a suit. Someone should have explained the director that he could have chosen a traditional staging if he had no ideas to add to Wagner’s well-conceived ones.

Semyon Bychkov knows his Tannhäuser and was able to find the right atmosphere for every scene: the warm tonal palette and flexible tempo for the Venusberg scene, the large scale and depth of sound for the pilgrims, the quicksilvery excitement for the hunting party, the grandeur for the arrival of the guests, the Innigkeit for Elisabeth’s prayer and Wolfram’s song. The Royal Opera House’s hardly belongs to the world’s leading Wagnerian orchestras – more blunders in the brass section than one would expect, poorly synched chorus, some dangerously messy ensembles and  noticeably hard-working violins in fast divisions did not entirely spoil the show, but one wonders what the conductor would do with a truly world-class formation.

Although Eva Maria Westbroek is admirably full-toned, Elisabeth is definitely not her role. She sounds too mature, lacks purity of tone in lyrical episodes, is often tested when softer dynamics are required and is ill-at-ease handling delicate feelings (her prayer came through as rather gutsy than touching). Michaela Schuster surprised me with the warmth and sexiness she could inject in her singing, but the role – as often in this repertoire – takes her too her limits and many exposed high notes were cut short rather than rounded out.  I have enjoyed Christian Gerhaher’s Wolfram less than probably everybody else. Although his voice is intrinsically beautiful, I find his phrasing lacking legato and often inclined almost to parlando, the tone too open and metallic now and then and the interpretation more studied than expressive. Compared to most baritones who tackle the role, it is of course an elegant performance – but I wouldn’t say that he was the shining feature of this performance. Christof Fischesser was a reliable Landgraf, producing focused low notes. Pity he seemed to be not really concentrated this evening.

Johan Botha’s physique and lack of stage presence may be for some too much to put up with, but if you like Wagnerian singing, you should listen to his healthily sung Tannhäuser. While most tenors in this role have a baritonal quality and become increasingly strained during the performance, this South-African tenor has an unending supply of powerful top notes and is entirely at ease with the somewhat angular writing. His voice has a spontaneous, bright-toned quality that flashes rather than climb through a Wagnerian phrasing. The results are unusually polished and musicianly. He is not an electrifying performer, but offered a particularly moving account of the Rome Narration and sounded really sincere in his sorrow on listening about Elisabeth’s death in the end of the opera.

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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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