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This is not the first time I have seen Claus Guth’s staging of Götterdämmerung for the Staatsoper Hamburg. I was able to see it right after the première when Simone Young was the conductor (as one can hear in the recording). Although I have not seen the other Ring operas, Mr. Guth, a director I usually find overambitious and all-over-the-place, seems to have pressed the right buttons in his pétite-histoire approach to the Tetralogy, in which the focus seems not to be the cosmogony and eschatology of THE world, but of one’s own personal word. It is, of course, a reductionist approach and a lot is left out, but I have the impression (I would have to see Rheingold and the Walküre to say more about it) that the idea was indeed paring it down to human size and make it a personal experience, something of a Bildungsroman. I have noticed also that the new cast and Holger Liebig’s Spielleitung have made it drier, less silly but also less forceful in terms of theatre. In any case, the sets already look worn out in a distracting way.

As much as in Munich ,conductor Kent Nagano opts for fast tempi and deals with the score almost in an abstract way, as if this the dramatic action had nothing to do with the music. I would say that one almost had the impression that Mr. Nagano believes that the music would disturb the dramatic action, so detached and unobtrusively it leaves all the job of interpretation and expression to the cast. One could conduct Bellini’s I Puritani like that. I have been careful not to use the word “symphonic”, for this would assume that structure and clarity would be the Schwerpunkt of this performance, but that was definitely not the case. The orchestral playing was mostly imprecise (the brass section particularly so) and awkward, and the sense of development very loose. This was particularly harmful in the many recapitulation scenes in this score, in which Leitmotive are showered upon the audience. There the sensation was more of cumulating than building up. The Immolation Scene was particularly short of momentum and organicity, hardly the climax of 15 hours of music and hundreds of pages of text.

I realize now I was unfair to Lise Lindstrom two days ago. The Siegfried Brünnhilde is so impossible to sing that, in the context, of a Ring performed in one or two weeks, most sopranos would simply give up the possibility of success in it and rather save resources for the strenuous but more realistic demands of Götterdämmerung (when they don’t simply delegate it to another singer, as often). In other words, it would be unfair to judge Ms. Lindstrom’s Brünnhilde’s credentials based on her performance in Siegfried. This evening she took the whole duet with Siegfried to warm, but after that sang consistently well. Saying that she is a lyric soprano in a dramatic role would be an oversimplification. There is something sui generis in the way her voice tackles some demands of the dramatic writing, but is dysfunctional in others. For instance, there are lyric sopranos out there whose lower registers are far richer than Ms. Lindstrom’s. In her lower reaches, she treads extremely carefully and some moments cannot help sounding anticlimactic (Ruhe, ruhe du Gott, for instance). Her high notes, however, have the right ping and most often than not flash in the auditorium quite firmly. Sometimes above the right pitch, truth be said. Most importantly, she is not afraid of high notes at all. This evening, she reached the end of the opera in better voice than she started. There was a moment in which one could clearly see that she decided to give the audience a little bit more just because she could. If you saw a “but” coming, you are right. She did handle some very difficult passages really adeptly, the end of acting 2 particularly, but everything generally sounds small-scaled, self-possessed and calculated. I understand that this is probably the reason why she manages her resources so well, but nobody goes to the theatre to admire energetic management. I mean, I left the theatre without a clue of what she thinks of this role.

Andreas Schager, on the other hand, is really “into” his Siegfried. Although he is not exactly an “actor”, he is very much at ease and alert on stage. This means, he is always communicating with his audience. In a very marked manner, but anyway, he is not just a guy providing sounds and making gestures. He inhabits the text and makes his points very clearly. For instance, he has a very unforgiving view of who is Siegfried. His whole performance turned around an exhibitionism that verged on nastiness. This Siegfried is like a star soccer player or a pop star. He can do whatever he wants and gets away with it. The all-out vocal approach to match is effective, of course, but less interesting than what one could hear before in Siegfried. Anyway, Mr. Schager was in rich voice and had more than enough leeway to make a show-inside-the-show in his death scene, mimicking the voice of Mime and producing the Waldvogel lines with flexibility and enough lightness. It must be said that his baritonal voice for the Tarnhelm scene is the most effective I have ever heard.

Stephen Milling offered a surprisingly subtle Hagen. This does not mean that he did not let out raw, slightly off-pitch hei-ho’s as every Hagen does, but everywhere else he seemed to run on “less is more” and this made him a little bit more sinister than usual. This also made sense for a singer not truly comfortable in the upper end of his range. As Alberich, Werner van Mechelen sounded somewhat woolly and had to resort to an emphatic attack that made his delivery closer to speaking. Vladimir Boykov’s grainy, rich baritone at first gave Gunther some gravitas, but he soon got tired and fought a bit with his high notes. Alison Oaks’s Gutrune seemed lighter and more girlish than in Bayreuth. Claudia Mahnke’s mezzo too was a bit softer-centered as Waltraute and the First Norn than I remembered. That did not prevent her from offering an alert accoubt of her narrative. Last but not least, Katharina Konradi’s Woglinde and Katja Piewek’s Second Norn are very well cast.

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Although my experience of watching Claus Guth’s production of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung for the Staatsoper Hamburg back in 2010 was thought-provoking, I had never had the opportunity of seeing other installments of the Ring at the Gänsemarkt until this evening’s presentation of Siegfried. As expected, the staging offers an intelligent approach to specific issues of this libretto while keeping coherence with the concept shown in the Tetralogy’s last opera. The backbone of Guth’s idea is the burden of History as a paralyzing element in a structure of power in contrast to the unfettering and dangerous effect of ignorance. Here we see Siegfried achieve everything the gods could not because he is entirely free from the constraints in which Wotan tangled himself by building the world. This is why he can also destroy it so easily. He has not real involvement with anyone or anything, because that is how he was raised, unaware even of his own history. He is incapable of fear because ultimately he has nothing to lose.

I have seen Kent Nagano conduct Siegfried once in Munich, and my impression was that Wagner is not his repertoire. This has been confirmed by this evening’s performance. It is true that back in the Bayerische Staatsoper Siegfried was the most successful item in the package, mainly because Mr. Nagano’s low-testosterone conducting sheds an interesting light in Wagner’s highest-testosterone score. With a help of the unusually poised singing offered by the cast, the American conductor led an almost Mozartian view of a music often referred to as raw and heavy. The problem is that after a while, one could see that what seemed to be legato was indistinct phrasing, what sounded like elegance was lack of accent and what passed for clarity was nothing but an indecision of what to highlight and when. Although the house acoustics made for an almost ideal balance of voices and orchestra, the orchestral sound itself was not particularly expressive or even exciting. The final bars in the closing scene, instead of portraying any sense of building exhilaration, sounded frankly awkward and bureaucratic.

The shining feature of this performance was, without any shadow of doubt, Andreas Schager’s firm-toned, unfatigable Siegfried. The penetrating quality of his tenor and his ability to boost power without making violence to phrasing made everything he sang sound like music. Nevertheless, Mr. Schager never made the mistake of making his Siegfried too chic. He is not the most gifted actor in the operatic scene, but his natural boyishness and goofiness make him particularly convincing here. Moreover, he seems to be having fun – in a role usually seen and heard as impossible to pull off. This is also the first time I hear a Mime who is not louder than the tenor in the title role. That is hardly Jürgen Sacher’s fault, who sang healthily and intelligently, albeit in too a Charaktertenor-ish way. Maybe it is a matter of taste, but I believe that the role gains a lot by being sung straight. I’ve had some trouble in recognizing in John Lundgren the singer I heard in Bayreuth. Here his Wanderer sounded so rich and dark that one would rather label him as a bass in a bassbaritone role. It is true that some high notes were a bit short in steam, but that was forgivable in this context. He sustained the illusion really well until the last act, when his voice lost some of the admirable darkness. Then the lack of a squillo became more of a problem. In any case, his was a cleanly-sung and musical take on the part. Although Jochen Schmeckenbecher’s baritone is a couple of sizes smaller than the role of Alberich, he sings it with welcome vehemence and forcefulness, not to mention the snarling and acting with the voice that always add zest to this part. Doris Soffel is an admirable veteran whose technical mastery allows her to get away with the low tessitura, but Erda requires a contralto voice. Elbenita Kajtazi was a very clear and fresh-toned Waldvogel.

This is the first time I’ve seen Lise Lindstrom. I had heard her on Youtube sing dramatic roles such as Turandot and Elektra and imagined myself something very different from what I heard this evening. Maybe it is the toil of a consistent diet of heavy parts on a light voice, but live she sounded hard-pressed and edgy in exposed acuti, hard to hear in low-lying passages and ill-at-ease as rule. After she warmed, she could bring a pleasant lyric quality to her singing, but the nasal, reined-in vocal production made her sound uninvolved and small-scaled. In her defense, she really made something of the trills, her rendition of the text was admirably clear and she could often give an impression of youth, also in her personal appearance. But she is not really an actress.

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Christian Stückl’s production of R. Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos was first seen in the Staatsoper Hamburg last year, with Anne Schwanewilms and Johann Botha in the leading roles. It is not a particularly visually striking production (rather on the kitsch side), but cleverly conceived and showing very clear Personenregie. Athough the director says he finds Hofmannsthal incapable of being truly funny, he succeeded in making it entertaining without indulging in slapstick and in making it touching but not very schmaltzy. His intent in relating the tragic and comic aspects (and the prologue and the opera) of the work proved to be organic and dramatically effective. Only the role of Bacchus deserved a little bit more profile (I know, there is little to work with, but…).

Conductor Axel Kober likes his Strauss grand and glamorous, sometimes at the expense of his singers’ comfort. One would often feel – especially during the prologue – that a lighter and clearer sound would have made all the difference of the world. Richard Strauss himself praised Lotte Lehmann’s freedom with tempo – she was the first singer to appear in the role of the Komponist – and when one listens to the 1944 live recording from Vienna (the composer celebrating his 80th birthday in the audience), one can hear how Dr. Böhm is responsive to Maria Reining’s fluidity with tempo. That is a lesson Maestro Kober still has to learn – he rushed forward his Komponist and Ariadne, lag behind his Bacchus and made a mess of the “buffo” passages, desperately lacking clarity and a light touch. The Bacchus/Ariadne scene finally worked very well – the rich orchestral sound, the way the conductor let the music breathe, everything concurred to the right atmosphere of sensuousness and elegance.

Replacing Katja Pieweck in the last minute, Karine Babajanyan (Ariadne) proved to be a very alert actress. I would have never said that she did not have the same level of rehearsing of her colleagues. The part lies on the heavy side for her voice, though. There are moments of poor legato or dubious intonations and the tonal quality is sometimes spongy. She could be nonetheless quite compelling in key moments, especially in what regards producing floating mezza voce or adding a personal touch when the music requires more than generical involvement. Although Maria Markina is billed as a mezzo soprano, I’ve discovered that only when I googled her. Nothing in what I’ve head this evening sounded remotely near to a mezzo sound. The voice is extremely bright, not particularly rich in low and medium register and very powerful in its high register. I was going to write that, for a soprano, she should be a little bit readier to try softer dynamics in some key moments in the role of the Composer, but, well, mezzos in this role usually feel uncomfortable with those passages anyway. In any case, it is a very exciting if not very individual voice, the kind one expects to hear in German dramatic soprano repertoire. Olga Peretyatko is ideally cast as Zerbinetta – her high register is extremely pleasant, round, creamy and easy, her coloratura is impressively accurate, she has very long breath and sings with great joie de chant. Although her German is occasionally accented (extra vowels after consonants in particular), she handles the text expertly and made some very interesting turns of phrase. I don’t think she has today any rival in this role. I was surprised to hear how fresh-toned Peter Seiffert (Bacchus) sounded this evening, producing the kind of lyricism and spontaneity he rarely shows in the heavier repertoire he has preferred lately. Some exposed acuti did sound effortful, but these notes sound so with almost every tenor. Minor roles were extremely well cast – Franz Grundheber handles his part of the Musiklehrer with the talents of a diseur, Christoph Pohl strong and warm-toned as the Harlequin, Jun-Sang Han unfazed by the high tessitura of Brighella, Ida Aldrian light and dark-toned as Dryad, just to mention some names.

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