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Posts Tagged ‘Staatskapelle Berlin’

My six or seven readers know by now that I am not a fan of Simon Rattle and that I usually find his Wagner too bombastic and lacking depth, but I had never had the opportunity to hear Violeta Urmana’s Isolde live and decided to take my chance. I won’t keep you in suspense – it was more than worth the detour. Rattle’s Tristan (judging from his rendition of the second act alone) is still work-in-progress, but the “preview” made me curious for what is to come. I am tempted to say that the chemistry between the conductor and the Berliner Philharmoniker is not really positive for Wagner, but I would need a crystal ball to say that (moreover, it would be dishonest to do so, considering that my experience is reduced to one concert in the Philharmonie and one DVD from Aix), but the fact is that the presence of the Staatskapelle Berlin, an orchestra that has learned its Tristan to perfection with Daniel Barenboim, proved to have a very positive effect on Mr. Rattle. I would be lying if I said that the orchestral playing was less than ardent, passionate, inspired. It would be also a lie to say that the success is due to the orchestra’s quality alone, for Rattle’s approach to the score is very different from Barenboim’s.

Although the many facets of this evening’s performance do not really build into a coherent view of the score, they are really fascinating in themselves. First of all, Rattle’s choice of tempi belongs to a tradition (the absence of a tradition maybe?) entirely different from Furtwänglerian suppleness and gravitas. If it would be possible to say something like that of a Wagnerian performance, Rattle’s was quite a tempo, the sense of a continuous and consistent beat seemed to focus the whole scale of his performance. The choice of the word “focus” is not accidental – this predilection for forward-movement allied to very precise playing of the orchestra brought about a real sense of horizontal clarity to the proceedings. The care with highlighting the Hauptstimme, connecting the singer’s parts to the “singing” line in the instruments (for illuminating effects in the Liebesnacht) helped further more the sense of continuity. This alone made it a special evening.

If my six or seven readers are still reading this paragraph, they might be wondering where the drawbacks are. So here they come. First, I wonder how wise it was to choose, in the context of this a tempo approach, such a fast “basic beat”. While it kept the more meditative moments particularly taut, it made the more urgent moments frantic: I would not say awkward, for the orchestra did a splendid job out of it, but the effect was a bit mechanical, the sense of transparency suffered a bit and singers were having the worst time of their lives spitting out things like habichdichwiederdarfichdichfassen [gasp]anmeinerbrust. Second, dynamics. Karajan must be smiling in his grave, for the playing with dynamics would made his EMI Tonmeister in his recording with Helga Dernesch and Jon Vickers proud. I have just deleted the adjective “fussy”, for the score shows that Wagner has indeed written those dynamic markings and they do not sound so extreme in a less hectic pace. In that sense, a Furtwänglerian Luftpause now and then would have made miracles. Third, if Rattle could keep his audience in the edge of their seats with his faithful obedience of the many Sehr drängend in the score, the general atmosphere was already urgent enough and in the end nervousness had the edge on variety of expression. And Wagner wrote a lots of ausdrucksvoll in the score too. Finally, a true Wagnerian conductor knows that he cannot conduct against his singers, especially in the concert hall with the big orchestra just behind them. All this is only a matter of fine-tuning, and although it was a problematic evening (the audience, for instance, did not seem particularly enthusiastic* – I would guess that the problem with singers should be largely to blame), it was also an intriguing and ultimately refreshing performance.

Although Violeta Urmana sang quite commendably, I would guess that maybe she was not in her absolutely best voice this evening. She could be just be heard over the orchestral fortissimi, but her voice often acquired a metallic harshness in those moments. The more difficult high notes posed her no problem (she should be proud of her flashing high c’s, for instance), but as soon as the orchestra’s voluminousness reached comfortable levels, the warmth of her voice could be felt and she would finally feel at ease to do what makes her a particularly welcome Isolde: singing those sensuous phrases with absolute femininity in  her round, full middle and low registers and her rich, vibrant top notes and lovely soft attacks that make all the difference of the world. There are far more intense and exciting Isoldes out there, but I have a soft spot for Urmana’s musicianly, seductive account of this role – even in an evening when the circumstances were not really congenial. With her dark, round and creamy mezzo-soprano, Lioba Braun has surprisingly clear diction and, thank God, can float her Habet acht! soaring phrases without any difficulty. Franz-Josef Selig’s voice is really beautiful and he handles the text with the care of a Lieder singer; his König Marke is indeed touchingly sung. He showed some instability in high notes when he had to sing fully and loud, but that is only a detail. The casting of Hanno Müller-Brachmann for just a couple of notes as Kurwenal and of veteran Reiner Goldberg as Melot is almost a show-off.

Although Robert Dean Smith was supposed to sing Tristan this evening, he fell ill and was replaced by Ian Storey, who is in town for his Énée at the Deutsche Oper. Considering how difficult his role in Berlioz’s Les Troyens is, it was quite generous of him. But these things have a price. Storey has some very big heroic top notes, but I have the impression that a bar fades out in his battery-level display for each one of them. While he still has the energy to tackle them, it is quite impressive, but when he reaches low-level, then one can feel how strenuous it all is. This evening, his battery leaked out very fast – and the conductor probably is to blame. If you are a tenor and already had to sing the first part of the love duet as loud and as fast as he had to this evening, your heart must be aching for him right now (and remember that the concert naturally offers the uncut version of the duet). Around Heil dem Tranke, his voice was completely gray, he had to duck some notes, sang others in falsetto, I have the impression he even had to clear his throat at some point. He must be a very persistent man and deserves all my admiration, for, although he had to use all the tricks in his sleeves to keep singing, he never really gave up and never lost sight of interpretation, shading his tone when required and singing full out when maybe someone wiser would have thought about that twice.

*At least compared with the standing ovation reserved to Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto with Barenboim as soloist. To my own shame, I have to confess that I’ve had such a busy day that I could not really concentrate to hear it and refrained from writing anything for that matter.

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Since the days of gramophone, Germany and Austria have created a noble lineage of glamourous, intelligent golden-toned lyric sopranos who have left their marks in Straussian, Mozartian and lighter Wagnerian roles such as Maria Reining, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Elisabeth Grümmer, Gundula Janowitz… But the truth is that one could believe that this tradition had been long lost to voices from places really far away from Vienna and Berlin. When we think of the most famous singers tackling this repertoire since the 80′s, we would rather think of Kiri Te Kanawa, Felicity Lott, Karita Mattila or Renée Fleming. But it seems that the old tradition has been reborn – Genia Kühmeier is making slow but firm steps into more-than-deserved stardom. I am sure we will hear a lot from and about her.

And there is Anja Harteros – whose relevance in the operatic world is now beyond any doubt. Although she has sung in the most prestigious theatres of the world and received some warm reviews, one still tends to think that the best is yet to come. Although the voice has immediate appeal, I have always found her frequent visitation of Italian repertoire not entirely inspiring beyond her appealing stage persona and her Julia Roberts-like looks and congeniality. But the tonal sheen of a true Italian soprano, the crispness of authentic delivery of the Italian text she has not. Moreover, although she has attitude to spare, it is still too German an attitude, in the first place. No problem about that – but why not use it in German roles? Since I have seen her as an ideal Elsa, I have been dreaming of her Marschallin, her Arabella, her Ariadne… but so far I’ve got only her Amelia in Simon Boccanegra.

However, I cannot complain. At least, I’ve got a glimpse of her Strauss this evening at the Konzerthaus, where she sang the Vier letzte Lieder with the Staatskapelle Berlin and Zubin Mehta. After hearing this orchestra in the Alpensinfonie, Der Rosenkavalier, Elektra and Salome, I am tempted to say that they are Berlin’s no. 1 Straussian orchestra. Their transparent sound picture and their good ear for those unearthly orchestral effects is everything a Straussian orchestra should have. Zubin Mehta seemed to avoid any languor and you would have to fill in the blanks for rubato effects in his forward-movement approach. In the end, this brought an objective approach to this often sentimentalized songs. But let’s speak of Anja Harteros. I have noticed that her voice definitely suffers from recordings. The plushness of her high notes and the warmth of her middle register do not seem to make it into the microphone.

Comparing her recording with Fabio Luisi and the Staatskapelle Dresden with what I heard live was realizing that these were too completely different experiences. While she is stylish and sensitive and finds no difficulties in the recording, live her voice is far rounder and richer in tone and yet lighter and more floating at the same time. Her mezza voce is particularly warmer live. Her interpretation has deepened also – the text is more sharply coloured and she finds simply more vocal glamour in the proceedings. Frühling is particularly improved. Now she sings the exposed extreme notes with such gentleness, what makes it easier to feel the sweetness of seeing springtime again, instead of the larger-scaled telluric performances we are often made to hear. The enthusiastic applause afterwards only proves that Germany is proud of her lyric sopranos again.

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In order to fund the old house’s renovation, the Staatsoper Unter den Linden has programmed a series of concerts to raise money. Taking profit of the opportunity of Plácido Domingo’s baritone venture in Simon Boccanegra, a Wagnerian evening with star soprano Nina Stemme and conductor Daniel Barenboim was organized in the Philharmonie. However, the Swedish soprano fell ill and was replaced at the last minute by a regular in the Lindenoper, mezzo Michaela Schuster, last seen as Ortrud in the première of the new production last April.

However, before these singers could open their mouths, Barenboim treated the audience to a sensational performance of  Tristan und Isolde’s Prelude and Liebestod. As in his last performance in the Staatsoper, the conductor indulged in a considerate tempo in order to showcase the orchestra’s sophisticated phrasing, tonal refulgence and clarity. The ensuing Liebestod offered an entirely contrasting approach, almost dance-like, in which the escalating chromatic figures spiralled in clearly defined alternate dynamic effects to breathtaking results.

After a white-heat start, The Valkyrie’s Act I would finally settle into something rather less impressive. Although the orchestra was in great shape, the need to adapt to the soloist’s necessities took its toil in what regards horizontal clarity and pace. Of course, Plácido Domingo’s vocal longevity is a marvel. The tone is certainly darker these days, but the sound is still fresh. However, the tenor needed some time to prepare for his ascent to top notes or for fast declamatory passages, forcing the conductor to step on the break pedal, for the loss of fluency sometimes. That said, he seemed far more comfortable than last time I heard him as Siegmund at the Gala concert in Munich with Waltraud Meier some two or three years ago.  A colleague from the Staatsoper’s Noccanegra, Kwangchul Youn was in great voice, producing some powerful sounds as Hunding.

Michaela Schuster deserves a paragraph for herself. I have seen her only twice as Ortrud, both in Berlin and Munich, and have found her vocally no more than efficient, but tonight, in this soprano role, I was able to understand more about her voice. Free from the burden of sounding formidable and dramatic, one can see the naturally lighter hue of her voice, which is surprisingly pleasant, soft and bright. I could imagine that she would be a touching in French roles such as Charlotte or Didon. In her more relaxed self, she floats lovely mezza voce and phrases with authentic legato. When things start to get too “Wagnerian”, the usual harsh quality comes unfortunately about. Of course, when the phrase is congenial she produces some firm big acuti, but generally she attacks them in a strangely backwards placement only to focus them a few seconds later. In order to accomodate her, the conductor had often to kept the orchestra’s enthusiasm on a leash.  But that is all secondary when one considers her highly expressive interpretation. Crystal-clear diction, the wide tonal palette of a Lieder singer and a highly alert and imaginative way of colouring the text. Some moments of her performance were original and illuminating even in comparison with some very famous Sieglindes. I really wish she would give her Ortruds and Kundrys a rest and made better use of her talent for subtlety for more than a change.

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The Staatsoper unter den Linden’s prima does not have the glamour associated to La Scala’s season opening performance, but the event does involve the presence of the Bundespräsident and simultaneous broadcast to thousands of people at the adjoining Bebelplatz. For the 2009/2010 season, an old production has been chosen, Harry Kupfer’s Tristan und Isolde, first seen in 2000.

Although the local press calls it legendary, it is actually quite unexceptional. The only set for the three acts shows a giant sculpture of an angel (inspired by a photo by Isolde Ohlbaum of a statue found in Rome) that doubles as a rocky landscape, which turns around to create different perspectives. On the background, some piece of furniture and people in XIXth century clothes (supposed to represent “society”) or a stylized sea landscape. Although the word “angel” does not appear at all in the libretto, if we are to believe that the composer’s feelings for  Mathilde Wesendonck were the early sparkles of inspiration for the opera, then we should remember that the first of her poems set to music by Wagner is… Der Engel. In any case, I really do not see any added insight to the understanding of the story or its interpretation. What one could clearly see was that walking on it was rather difficult and all singers had to watch their steps while trying to sing difficult music. I have not previously seen this staging, but I have the impression that the director’s original ideas might have faded since 2000. In many scenes, singers seemed a bit at a loss with their blocked gestures and tried to milk meaning from generalized stage attitudes. Even the charismatic Waltraud Meier had her clueless moments. If I had to single out someone, this would be Ian Storey, who knows how to scenically pull out act III better than almost anyone I have seen – live or on videos – in this role.

When it comes to the musical direction, Daniel Barenboim has no weak links in his monumental yet supple approach to the score. On his DVD from La Scala, a beautifully crafted act 1 would open the proceedings in the grand manner only to settle in less intense remaining acts. Not this evening. After a deep Furtwänglerian prelude when absolute structural clarity was paradoxically achieved in the context of sophisticated agogics, the first act took a while to take off – probably because the conductor had to accommodate his cast’s needs. From act II on, the performance gained in strength. The Staatskapelle Berlin was at its resplendent best, offering thick Wagnerian sound and breathtaking flexibility throughout. That meant that singers would now and then find themselves drowned in orchestral sound, but the trade-off paid itself – sometimes during the Liebesnacht one would feel that time stood still in sheer beauty of sound and clarity and dramatic purpose. But act III surpassed even these paramount levels. Never in my experience had it sounded as flowing as it did this evening – as it had been produced in one perfectly integrated arch from the first bars of the introduction to the Liebestod’s last chord.

Waltraud Meier has had an up-and-down experience with the role of Isolde. So far I’ve had bad luck live, but I cannot make my mind whether this evening was a lost opportunity. I would not say she was in bad voice, only that her voice was not willing to sing Isolde. It sounded lean and lyrical and resented the least dramatic turn of phrasing. A less experienced singer would have horribly failed. Not Waltraud, who husbanded her present resources with such shrewdness and imagination that she finally convinced me that she was experimenting with a Margaret Price-like approach to the role. On one hand, the lightness helped to create a more youthful and legato-ish sound that certainly brought about a more immediately romantic tonal palette to the role; on the other hand, she had many moments of inaudibility, pecked at high notes in an almost operetta-ish way and simply did not sing her act II high c’s. Later on, she would warm a bit and gather her strength to produce some loud Spitzentöne, some of them below true pitch. Some of these problems afflicted her Liebestod, but there she and Barenboim achieved such unity of phrasing that no-one could help but surrendering. In any case, that final scene was vastly superior to their studio recording in every sense.

As for Ian Storey, first of all, I must apologize for my opinion on his Tristan as heard at the Deutsche Oper a couple of months ago. Except from an extremely unfocused frenzy on hearing the news of Isolde’s arrival on act III, he sounded this time relatively comfortable with what he had to sing. His dark-toned tenor has a certain disconnected quality around the passaggio that brings about a marked flutter and loss of tonal quality, and his procedure to make his top notes incisive lets itself being noticed. But I don’t want to seem picky – his voice is big, warm and ductile and he has imagination, good taste and his general attitude fits the part. His Tristan finds the right balance between heroic and vulnerable, which is quite rare with Heldentenöre.

In spite of the soprano and the tenor’s achievements, the outstanding vocal performance this evening is beyond any doubt René Pape’s. This great bass sang with such richness, authority, sensitivity and sheer vocal glamour that one for once could feel that the act II monologue could be a bit longer!  In the performance booklet, Harry Kupfer suggests that King Marke and Tristan’s relationship goes beyond nephew/uncle and reaches an almost incestuous level. In this production, the similarity of age, the violence of feelings and the heartbreak in Pape’s voice almost make this bold assumption work.

Although Michelle DeYoung is not the subtlest Brangäne around, she was in very healthy voice and managed to pierce through the occasional thick and/or lound orchestral moment without forcing. I cannot say the same of Roman Trekel – the role of Kurwenal is on the heavy side for him and he sounded invariably rough and hard-pressed. He is an intelligent artist, however, and found space to add a discrete sense of humor to his lines.

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