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Posts Tagged ‘Staatsoper im Schiller Theater’

Guy Cassiers’s Ring for La Scala/Lindenoper could hardly be described as a story of success. The première of Das Rheingold was able to create the rare event of an almost consensus among Wagnerians (against the omnipresent dancers); Die Walküre hit the news of Corriere della Sera when Waltraud Meier voiced what everybody had already noticed (no Personenregie); then nobody bothered to comment Siegfried, for at that point it seemed like beating a dead horse.

I would dare to say that there was actually some evolution between the first and the second day of the tetralogy: Siegfried is aesthetically superior to these production’s two previous stations. I would even say that Götterdämmerung is a further step from Siegfried. Although the team of dramaturges display an almost psychedelic imagination  and a colorful bibliography in the performance books’ texts, the issues raised by them do not make into the staging (except for a 1889 frieze from a building in Brussels not even remotely connected to anything Wagnerian but used as some sort of centerpiece in the sets); here the story is told with literalness and stand-and-delivery is the sort of acting one would find here. The insight is entirely delegated to Arjen Klerkx and Kurt d’Haeseleer’s aptly atmospheric yet often overbusy videos. All that said, apart from horrendous costumes, the production is more often than not visually striking, coherent and unobtrusive. This hardly sounds positive, I know, but I wonder how much the pressure of being original did not prevent this creative team of doing the most basic task of staging an opera, which is telling the story. Insights are like melodies – you cannot produce them out of willpower. They are either there or not. When one thinks that almost every production of the Ring – traditional or revolutionary – never solve basic scenic problems such as “what should everybody, Hagen particularly, be doing while Brünnhilde sings the Immolation Scene?”, one should think twice before dismissing directors who are just willing to tell the story in a CONVINCING way. For instance, although I still dislike the idea of the Tarnhelm represented as FOUR dancers (Brünnhilde must have thought very confusing that these FIVE people were actually just one man and not a Big-Love sort of group-marriage), the fact is that the Siegfried-disguised-as-Gunther scene is supposed to be violent. Generally, Brünnhilde looks like a very formidable lady overreacting to a clueless guy with a piece of cloth on his head. This evening, even if the whole concept could be refined, the helpless Brünnhilde was practically violated right before the audience’s eyes.

The Staatskapelle Berlin, as in Siegfried, produced exquisite sounds, but Daniel Barenboim would only intermittently delve into the heart of this score. The Festtage is an athletic task for someone in his 70’s and one can see that the marathon of daily conducting big works has its consequences. This evening, his supply of energy proved insufficient in many key moments – a egg-timer approach to Siegfried’s journey through the Rhine made for a rather lifeless Gibichungenhalle scene; act II had a labored and noisy ending, while act III featured an exhausted, superficial funeral march for Siegfried and a Immolation Scene that never beyond correct in spite of a brilliant soloist. In other moments, though, one would feel as in Wagnerian paradise, surrounded by rich, clear and warm sounds used in the service of the drama.

This evening, Irene Theorin was the very example of artistic generosity. She carried on her shoulders the task of generating the expressive impulse of this performance – and she relished the opportunity. She proved again to be particularly warm-toned in her middle-register and in ductile voice, exploring both ends of dynamic range with naturalness. She produced a rare display of dramatic and musical unity, galvanizing every note and every word in the score with her sensitive and intelligent singing and acting. The Waltraute/Brünnhilde scene, for instance, where Waltraud Meier (who should give her long-abandoned mezzo roles a try again) and Theorin showed you everything you should know about Musikdrama, was an experience to cherish. Although she was not as ideally partnered in act II, she offered the ideal balance of power and subtlety Wagnerians dream about.

Again, Waltraud Meier was in very good voice and offered a deep, intense performance both of Waltraute and the 2nd Norn, where she was well partnered by Margarita Nekrasova and Anna Samuil (unfortunately, far less successful as a very metallic and blunt Gutrune). The Rheinmaidens were also very well-matched in spirited performances.

Among the men, Johannes Martin Kränzle (Alberich) proved to be the most convincing, even if his voice is not as dark as one would wish for.  His crisp delivery of the text and dramatic intensity were a contrast to Mikhail Petrenko’s disappointing Hagen. Seeing a young singer in this role – one who has the necessary attitude for it moreover – promised new perspectives, but this singer should take some time for an “engine check”. As heard this week, his singing seems drained of overtones, throaty and constricted, entirely different from what I heard from him in a not distant past. Ian Storey (Siegfried) seemed to be making a tremendous effort that brought about very little sound until he was announced indisposed but willing to go just before act III. After that, although one could hear that he was not well, he could find very intelligent and sensitive solutions to make it to the end. Finally, Gerd Grochowski was a boorish and somewhat rough Gunther.

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“I have a friend who says you cannot ruin a performance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth – the cast may be awful, the director may be an imbecile, but the Bard’s text will shine through nonetheless. Is it Wagner’s Siegfried something similar? I don’t know, but I have realized that, in many performances of the tetralogy in my recollection, it was Siegfried the most effective in the lot (before my 13 or 14 readers ask me which one tends to be the worse, this is Die Walküre). Is it the propulsive rhythms, the inescapable necessity of crisply declaimed texts teaching where the right tempo is, the vertiginous action?”. It sounds utterly unimaginative to quote oneself, but I have to register another occurrence of the Siegfried-phenomenon.

It is hard to believe that this is the same orchestra and conductor from last Sunday’s Walküre. Then I have said that, from the opening bars, one could see that the performance would not take off. This evening, from the onset, Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin caught my attention. The variety of tonal possibilities explored by this orchestra this evening – ranging from the raucous to the crystalline – could tell alone everything you have to know about this opera. Even in the infamously dry acoustics of the Schiller Theater, the fulness of sound was often surprising. Clarity and coloring were the means chosen by the conductor to build his interpretation this evening – and the fact that the cast involved some big voices was reason enough for satisfaction. It was the orchestra the story-teller this evening – and the fact that these singers could be heard over it allowed Barenboim to fill the hall with sound and give his musicians leeway to produce some very interesting effects. Instead of going for excitement and fast tempi in the forging song, for instance, he allowed his tenor to articulate the text, while a kaleidoscopic sound picture unfolded itself around him. Later, when Siegfried longed for the mother his never knew, one could feel the presence of the forest around him in the vividness and warmth of the Staatskapelle’s string section’s playing. If I have to be picky, act III had a less impressive start, with a noisy and unsubtle Erda/Wotan scene; one could also imagine a more otherworldly awakening for Brünnhilde, but this difficult last scene developed very naturally and organically.

I have seen Lance Ryan as the Siegfried in Siegfried both in Bayreuth and Munich – and I have the impression that this evening’s was his most convincing performance. His singing still turns around clear diction, power and stamina rather than legato, sense of line and a truly pleasant voice, but he was both in better shape than in Munich and offered some very impressive full high notes such as I cannot recall to have heard in the Green Hill. I have the impression that he will never do justice to the grandiosely romantic lines of the final scene, but this evening he evidently did his best to sound smoother there.

Peter Bronder is a gifted actor with crisp articulation of the text, but his Mime has very little tonal variety. His very metallic tenor sometimes spreads in the higher ranges and is not really comfortable when things get low. By the end of act II, he sounded a bit tired too. I never cease to be amazed with Terje Stensvold’s vocal health at this stage of his career. His Wotan lacks variety and charisma (and has a patch of nasality in the middle range), but it is an uncomplicated and  very powerful voice, especially in the baritone area of his bass-baritone. The contrast with Johannes Martin Kränzle’s intense, detailed performance as Alberich is quite telling. I was not very impressed when I saw him in Rheingold both in Milan and in Berlin, but this evening he was in very good voice, singing clearly and forcefully. Anna Larson is a soft-centered Erda with rich low notes, Rinnat Moriah was a somewhat edgy Waldvogel, and Mikhail Petrenko’s Fafner was a little better than his Hunding.

Anyone who expects perfection in the singing of Brünnhilde in this opera is bound to be disappointed. The role requires lyrical qualities that no dramatic soprano is able to offer in a tessitura as high as this one – and lyric sopranos find the part basically very strenuous. Irene Théorin trod carefully this evening, switching to mezza voce to produce a flowing line in high-lying passages, never letting go a convenient breathing point and keeping things as light as possible. This had the benefit of making her Brünnhilde sound particularly vulnerable and appealing. The transition to sheer Wagnerian voluminousness in climactic high notes were sometimes a bit abrupt, but she never failed to respond to these requirements. All in all, a very commendable performance.

As for Guy Cassiers’s production, I cannot see any concept behind the proceedings, which basically tell the story in a very generalized way, the Personenregie often very blank. Since there is a lot of physical action in Siegfried, one feels that less when the title role and Mime are involved. The projections are very effectively use in the forging scene, but generally sets, costumes and props are used for purely visual aesthetics. The bad news is that the dancers are back. This time they have swords and they use them to form patterns (like stars, hexagons and other completely irrelevant and distracting things). They also animate a very primitive dragon, made with a white blanket and projections.

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My story with Guy Cassiers’s production of Wagner’s Die Walküre is everything but uneventful: it had a very bumpy start in Milan (with one important compensation); than it became something truly impressive in its first season in Berlin, only to become something notably less spectacular one year later. In the fourth chapter of our chronicle, a trend seems to be confirmed – this evening’s performance proved to be even less compelling than last year. From the opening bars, one could see that the energy of previous years could not be reproduced this evening. Although the conductor could elicit some excitement from his musicians now and then, a sense of structure could not be produced, pace seemed to sag, the orchestral sound tended to be heavy and brassy and occasionally messy (the Walkürenritt was downright bad, a disappointing group of valkyries and the orchestra really poorly integrated). There were moments when the performance seemed to be on, but in a very incoherent way.  Whenever Sieglinde and Siegmund entered in Tristan-esque mood, Barenboim would press the brake predal and opt for a dense string-based sound and heavily expressive style that maybe could have build into a Furtwänglerian experience if this could be sustained for more than two minutes.

His Sieglinde seemed to suffer from the same problem. In the first act, Waltraud Meier seemed out of sorts – low notes left to imagination, faulty legato, approximative pitch and very tense high notes. Later her voice would improve and produce some edgy but powerful dramatic high notes. She seemed particularly adept when she got a moment of Innigkeit and chromaticism. Then she would remind us of her younger self, offering sensuous and exquisite turn of phrases, with beautiful hushed moments.. As much of everything else in her performance, these moments too seemed calculated. There was no spontaneity in this Sieglinde, who behaved rather as if the Feldmarschallin had been kidnapped and held hostage by Hunding. That said, one cannot cease to wonder of how intelligent and perceptive her scenario is.  For example, the way she sang So lass mich dich heißen, wie ich dich liebe: Siegmund – so nenn’ich dich convinced me that all other singers did not truly get what Sieglinde meant there. There is a lot to be learned from a performance with so many instances of superior understanding of the text like this, even if the results were undeniably vocally flawed.

I have seen Irene Théorin produce more exuberant top notes than this evening, but otherwise I have particularly enjoyed what she has done today. First of all, her voice was overall warmer – especially in the middle register – and rounder this evening than what I can remember. Although she usually finds no trouble in singing softer dynamics, today her mezza voce was particularly exquisite and effortless. She reserved her truly scintillating acuti for key moments and, as a result, her Brünnhilde sounded particularly youthful and touching. And she deals with act III as few other singers – it is truly an emotional journey, done with a very wide-ranging tonal palette and artistic generosity. If I sound mean by saying that Ekaterina Gubanova too seemed not to be in her absolutely best day, the explanation is that she was even richer-toned and more forceful last year.

Christopher Ventris is a great improvement in terms of casting in this production. He is the lest hammy Siegmund here since 2010 to start with. His is not a memorable voice, but one used with fine technique and good taste. His lyric approach to the role pays off in moments like Winterstürme and he can produce some powerful notes now and then. There are some underwhelming moments and some instances of indifferent delivery of the text, but I cannot help finding his singing refreshing in comparison to his competition both in the Schiller Theater and at La Scala. René Pape still struggles with the high tessitura, but he was in a better day this evening than last year. Although most of his upwards excursions were constricted or tense, his voice is naturally big and noble enough to offset this most of the time. In any case, he sails through the role in grand style, tackling Wotan’s act II big monologue with crystal-clear diction, sensitive delivery of the text and tonal variety. As for Mikhail Petrenko (Hunding), his bass was often poorly focused and sometimes hooty. In order to make for that, he often “acted with the voice” in a distracting manner.

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Claus Guth’s production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni for the Salzburg Festival can be seen on DVD – and I have written about it in operadiscographies.com. As much as I find Christian Schmidt’s hyper-realistic sets exquisite and truly atmospheric and Guth’s Personenregie most efficient, I dislike on principle productions in which what characters say makes no sense with what they are doing – like talking to people who do not exist or referring to going outside when they are already outside or going up where there is no upstairs. I find it even cheaper when the nonsense is explained as a regular basis with the fact that the characters are intoxicated; ad absurdum, if your premise is that characters are really delirious, you don’t even have to stage it at all.  Call me fastidious, but I also dislike the idea that Donna Anna – and I have already written about that – is a double-faced scheming bitch.

In any case, this evening’s Don Giovanni was a different experience from the Salzburg Don Giovanni. First, it uses a different edition. While in the Festival, we basically had the Vienna edition without the closing scene, here we have the “standard” edition without the closing scene. Second, the audiences in Salzburg had Bertrand de Billy’s well-behaved conducting, while Berliners had a more appropriately ebullient Daniel Barenboim. Third, the cast changes gave the show a somehow different atmosphere – this evening’s Donna Anna, for instance, seemed more depressed than predatory, and her Don Ottavio more unconcerned than bitter.

But let’s talk about Barenboim first. Since his last Nozze di Figaro in the Schiller Theater, I have developed a new interest in what this conductor has to offer in this repertoire. Although Figaro was an all-round more satisfying experience, this Don Giovanni was no less interesting. This evening, the maestro tried to reconcile two traditions of Mozart performance: on one side, absolute transparency achieved through optimal balance between singers and the orchestral lines, especially woodwind (violins could have been a tad more clearly articulated); on the other, the intent to infuse phrasing with drama through accent, tone-coloring and dynamics. These two objectives some time collided in the occasional lack of polish, but I would say that, on the frame of very carefully picked tempi, they generally cohabited with interesting results. La ci darem la mano, for instance, sounded truly fresh in its rhythmic alertness; Dalla sua pace had lovely hushed strings (in spite of a tenor who could not blend in), both Donna Anna and Donna Elvira had intense, psychologically-aware accompagnati before their arias; and the supper scene (here the last one) was truly powerful without ever loosing forward-movement. The fact that Barenboim could provide the necessary punch (seriously lacking in Salzburg) made Guth’s staging sharper – to say the truth, there were many moments in which the drama was really happening in the orchestral pit rather than on stage.

I reckon that gathering an all-star Mozartian cast for Don Giovanni must be quite challenging these days: singers who sang Mozart in the days of Gundula Janowitz and Fritz Wunderlich now are basically Wagner/Verdi singers and the Donna Annas of our days would have had a career as Blondchen or Barbarina back then. In this context, this evening’s was an effective cast. In any case, those disappointed by Anna Netrebko’s cancelling had a most positive surprise in Maria Bengtsson. If her voice is not truly distinctive in tone (I had seen her as Pamina and was not particularly impressed), it is particularly rich and creamy for a high soprano. The fact that it seemed to blossom and feel really comfortable in the upper reaches made for a particularly smoothly sung Donna Anna (maybe a bit too smooth in Or sai chi l’onore), and the large supplies of legato and mezza voce (plus reliable if not breathtaking fioriture) made her an example of Mozartian poise today. From now on, I am curious to see what she is doing next.

Compared to her performance on video, Dorothea Röschmann sounded far healthier this evening. Her voice flashed in the hall, the low register particularly rich, and she sings every moment as if it were the last one, what is almost a requirement for a Donna Elvira. That said, her high register does sound labored these days: everything above a high g (high g included) is sung with an important amount of pressure. When urgency is involved, it works somehow; when poise is required, one is consistently left wanting. Anna Prohaska is better cast as Zerlina than as Susanna – her soprano comes in one very bright color and she is not particularly seductive in sound and in attitude, but she is admirably intelligent in what regards making use of the text.

I had seen Giuseppe Filianoti only once a long while ago in a Lucia at the Met. Then I had found him an elegant singer, but it seems that the years have not been kind on his voice. It is still substantial for a Mozart tenor and he has very long breath (as one could particularly see in his runs in Il mio tesoro), but he now sounds impressively tout and hard above the passaggio. Tonal variety is gone, pitch goes awry now and then and the results are simply not truly ingratiating. In this cast, he was also the less interesting actor – one had the impression that he was truly annoyed by being there. Since Don Giovanni is in death agony in this staging, it is difficult to say if Christopher Maltman is actually portraying his character’s declining vigor or if he does get actually tired with everything he has to do (it is a very “physical” approach to the role), but I’ll take the first option and add that his well-focused baritone has both the necessary Mozartian sheen and the hint of rawness to make his Burlador de Sevilla three-dimensional. Erwin Schrott’s Leporello was not really subtly sung, but he did sing it forcefully and his acquaintance with the Italian text and his imagination to play with it always work miracles. Stefan Kocan’s Slavic-toned bass sounded somehow too important for Masetto, and Alexander Tsymbalyuk’s Commendatore is more than resonant enough. One could wish for a bit more menace in his singing, but solidly sung it was.

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René Jacobs’ collaboration with the Berlin Staatsoper has gives the audiences in the German capital the opportunity to discover many rarely staged operas, but none so unusual as Emilio de’ Cavalieri’s proto-opera (if it is correct to call it thus) Rappresentatione di Anima et di Corpo, premiered in Rome in 1600 (yes, 412 years ago). The truth is that, since it has been “unearthed” in 1912, it has had its moment – a staging in the Salzburg Festival (1968-1972) with José van Dam in various bass roles and a surprisingly historically informed 1970 recording conducted by Charles Mackerras and gloriously cast with Tatiana Troyanos (Anima), Hermann Prey (Corpo) plus Arleen Augér, Teresa Zylis-Gara, Edda Moser, Kurt Equiluz, Theo Adam et al.

As René Jacobs explains in the program, his choices for the Berlin performances were based in Cavalieri’s description of instrumentation plus some information gathered in contemporary treaties, but the keyword is tonal variety. Think of a plucked-string instrument – it was there. If you haven’t though of a ceterone, you don’t have to feel badly about this: a copy from the only extant original instrument has been ordered just for the occasion. Jacobs composed as well added parts for strings and woodwind in order to enrich the texture, as it would have been the case back in the 17th century. I am not a specialist, but I found the results very refreshing, especially because after 30 min one has the impression that the same melody is being played again and again. Maybe for the same reasons, Jacobs followed Mackerras’ example and invited operatic soloists (even if they are the kind of opera singer you would not find in an opera composed after 1790). Marie-Claude Chappuis was a delightfully sweet-toned Anima and Johannes Weisser sang with ideal balance between richness of tone and clarity. Both basses, Gyula Orendt and Marcos Fink, sang warmly and expressively and the two choirboys – Thoma Wutz and Raphael Zinser – sang very well and are very good actors.

I have had bad experiences with Achim Freyer, especially the fact that his personenregie usually has to do with making people move like robots in nonsensical circumstances. But, well, Rappresentatione… does not really have stage action, character development etc – and the director proved to be the man for the role. His staging is a feast for the eyes – not in the sense that it is beautiful (in the sense of pleasant), but in its imaginative, fresh-eyed playing with symbolism without ever falling on the trap of laughing at Agostino Manni’s libretto, but rather laughing with it – for all involved, musicians, actors, the audience, everyone were having a great time while taking part in it. It made me think of the stagings of mystery plays by members of the congregation of catholic churches in the northeast of Brazil – non-actors, improvised props and costumes, the mixture of sacred and profane, old and new, serious and comic, popular and erudite references and, most of all, a disarming sincerity in its heterogeneity. Maybe that is why it had such an appeal for me – in any case,  I had the impression that I was not alone in my appreciation this evening.

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Staging an incomplete work – be it Puccini’s Turandot or Berg’s Lulu – is always tricky. One never knows how much of the torso would remain if the composer could have had the time to behold the complete work and make his final touches. In the case of Lulu, one could actually write an opera about it – when Berg died, he had written acts I and II. For act III, there were the vocal parts and a couple of scenes fully composed (basically those appearing in the Lulu suite) – the particella would show more or less what he envisaged for the rest of it. Although Berg’s widow first showed an interest in commissioning the completion of the opera, she would  later mysteriously change her mind and finally forbid anyone to see the material left by her husband, let alone do anything about it. The editors, however, smuggled copies to Friedrich Cerha, whose final edition would only be performed in Paris in 1976 (as we can listen in the live recording with Teresa Stratas conducted by Pierre Boulez). This year, the Deutsche Staatsoper decided to write a postlude to this story. Based on the opinion that the Prologue was composed to appease eventual censorship, it was decided that it should be cut off. You notice that I did not produce the name of who made this decision – it must be someone far more authoritative than Berg himself, who took the pains to compose the music for it. The second big decision was to have act III beginning right from the London scene. This time the reason was that it is dramatically flawed and musically inconsistent. That is why English composer David Robert Coleman was invited to re-orchestrate what remains of the controversial last act. I am no specialist in Berg’s music and have listened to Lulu only a couple of times in my life, but – even if I mistrust people who find themselves more clever than the original composers themselves – I have to confess that I found Coleman’s intentionally “more intimate” orchestration effective, rich in atmospheric effects and aptly uncanny.

I am hardly the best person to assess how successful Daniel Barenboim’s conducting is in this repertoire. I have listened to his recording of Wozzeck and found it a bit dull, but this evening, even if an expert tries to convince me of the contrary, I would stick to my very positive impression. I have written here that I found Levine’s last Wozzeck at the Met “Straussian” in its beautiful orchestral sound – but this evening’s Lulu was almost Tristan-esque in its rich-toned, dense, dark, intense, passionate conducting. When I write “passionate”, I can see some people raising their eyebrows – and I answer that I don’t mean by it that it was loud and full of contrasting tempi. No, the performance flowed naturally and the orchestra had a Bayreuth-ian “full but not loud” aural picture, with amazing effects in wind instruments in truly concertante writing with singers on stage. I would say that those who left the theatre this evening still disliking this opera should probably loose hope of ever liking it.

The cast here assembled could also hardly be bettered. First of all, the casting of Mojca Erdmann in the title role couldn’t be more interesting. Her sweet, almost edulcorated soprano is not really expressive in itself – it does not suggest seduction, raw energy, rapaciousness, you name it. It’s almost virginal purity, allied to her almost abstract interpretation, made her Lulu more puzzling than any other singer I have seen in this role. Some say that Lulu is nothing but a projection of the desires of those surrounding her, and that is how she sounded this evening, some sort of perverted Olympia (yes, from Les Contes d’Hoffmann). She sang with great accuracy, Mozartian poise and very clean high notes. In other repertoire, some could find her in alts a bit underwhelming, here I found them instrumental and musically elegant, in the sense that they never saturated the picture, but rather blended into it. She must be praised too by her willingness to sing this impossibly difficult music in the most difficult positions, being carried by other actors and even almost upside down at one point.

Deborah Polaski was similarly an elegantly understated Countess Geschwitz, her sizable dramatic voice giving her enough leeway to deliver her text in a most musically spontaneous way. The Staatsoper must be praised by the impressive group of tenors featured this evening. Stephan Rügamer caressed Berg’s lines as if they had been composed by Mozart in the role of the Painter and nimbly executed a complex choreography as the Negro while singing with the right sense of humor. Thomas Pifka proved to be a more heroic Alwa than often, less smooth than, say, Peter Straka (in Jeffrey Tate’s recording) but more positive and varied, while Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke displayed a more metallic and verbally specific approach to the Prince. Among the low voices, Michael Volle (Dr. Schön/Jack the Ripper) called attention in its velvety richness and volume, but he would tire a bit by the end of act II. In comparison, Thomas J. Mayer(the Athlete) sounded recessed and rough-toned, but he is an excellent actor and used the text very convincingly. Jürgen Linn’s pitch-dark Schigolch had too much off-pitch expressive effects, but this seems to be the rule in this role. Anna Lapkovskaja (dresser/high-school boy) deserves mentions too for her forceful, fruity voice.

As for Andrea Breth’s production, although I quite like the decadent atmosphere she was able to produce and her very precise Personenregie, I cannot stand stagings in which people behave like puppets. The fun of watching opera is seeing PEOPLE on stage and the richness of expression they can convey with their faces and gestures. If they are supposed to walk like a robot, then I would rather see the concert version – especially in a concept in which the libretto is very loosely followed in a plot that demands a little bit more attention (too many characters, too many unconventional reactions, too many different settings…) from the audience. To make things more problematic, from act II on, the robot-walking is replaced by somewhat more realistic acting, but then one has already given up. I am sure that, in straight theatre, where the dialogues are more specific, this may work (or not?) – but here it was just “noise” to the music.

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Before the Deutsche Staatsoper shows its complete Ring (made in collaboration with Milan’s La Scala) in 2013, a recapitulation of the previous two installments has been offered during the Festtage 2012. While Das Rheingold had cast changes (most notably René Pape as Wotan), Die Walküre has the same cast from last year, when I could catch the last performance, conducted at white heat by Barenboim and sung in the grand manner by almost everyone in the cast. This evening, the circumstances proved to be somewhat less exciting. After an aptly raw introduction, Barenboim took some time to switch full powers and, even when he did, one had the sensation that, instead of continuous development, one would rather see moments when things seem to connect and build up in momentum only to sag back to slimmer orchestral sound and less exciting music-making. Friday he conducted Rheingold; Saturday, Lulu; this evening, Walküre – maybe this explains his variable level of energy. In any case, when all elements actually converged – as in the Fricka/Wotan scene and especially in the Sieglinde/Brünnhilde act III scene – memories of last year came back very vividly.

In terms of casting, all women deserve high compliments this evening. Iréne Theorin displayed a particularly strong middle register this evening without any loss of power in her high notes. Some may find her voice overmetallic now and then, but her artistry is beyond minor snags. Everything about her performance is generous: her powerful voice, her keenness on tonal and dynamic variety (exquisite pianissimi throughout), her fully committed stage persona. It is hardly her fault that Anja Kampe could sometimes be even more touching – she was born to sing Sieglinde and has inscribed her name along the great exponents of this role. Ekaterina Gubanova’s Fricka has only grown in strength since last year – she offers a perfect blended of warmth and focus in her rich mezzo-soprano.

Although Simon O’Neill has received warm applause, I have to say that his singing this evening got on my nerves. If you are curious to know how Gerhard Stolze would have sounded as Siegmund, you just needed to be in the Schiller Theater today. In any case, Stolze was a better actor (and a singer of more nuance) than O’Neill, who hams as if his life depended on it. Mikhail Petrenko’s bass sounded throaty and unsupported and offered very little impact as Hunding.  As we have often discussed here, the part of Wotan is on the high side for René Pape, but – in one of these six days in the year when one’s voice is just perfect – he has no rivals in depth, nobility and musicianship. Alas, this was not one of these six days, and his high register was basically non-functional. In the second act, he struggled a lot with it and had to resort to every trick available to get away with high-lying passages. Fortunately, he excelled in rounded, rich, voluminous tones in his long recap of Rheingold, in which he used all his Lieder singer abilities. The problem remained that he still had act III to sing. The fact that he saved his voice for the closing scene would be more disturbing, if Pape had not cunningly found a dramatic excuse for that: I have never seen such a world-weary, depressed Wotan as this evening. When he sang Nicht send’ ich dich mehr aus Walhall, it sounded as if he was describing all the torments of HIS life without Brünnhilde. When he finally had to sing out, the voice was still tense and unflowing in its upper reaches, but he still could make it to the end commendably. During the curtain calls he seemed at first a bit apologetic and then legitimately touched by the audience’s recognition. I just wonder how rewarding the experience is for him – and I have to believe that his intent to expose his reputation as an immaculate singer in such a strenuous part must come from his unreserved love for Wagner music. And I respect that.

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Donizetti’s favorite melodramma giocoso is a vehicle for star tenors. Its hit aria, Una furtiva lagrima, almost compulsory singing for any tenor, even when it does not sit properly in their voices. Looking at the discography, you’ll find recordings with singers ranging from Luigi Alva to Plácido Domingo. And Rolando Villazón has made his name as Nemorino, his video from the Vienna State Opera with Anna Netrebko a best-seller. Since then, the Mexican tenor has ventured into heavier roles, developed problems in his vocal folds, endured surgery and returned to the theater where his Nemorino first got wide acclaim.When one speaks of his performance this evening, one must tackle each side of it separately. Villazón is a great comedy actor, he has the right instincts, endless imagination and… well, he is a funny guy. I’ve had a great time seeing him on stage – he is truly someone who is ready to do anything to please his audience and does it very naturally and engagingly. Now when it comes to his singing, I am afraid he was not in good voice this evening. Although the tone is consistently pleasant, his high register was tight and bottled-up, failing to run into the auditorium. His big aria was more a result of persistence and a tiny little bit of cheating than of grace and expression. For someone who has recovered from the above-mentioned surgery, I find it worrisome that he pushes his high notes so recklessly instead of truly supporting them more flexibly in a round and full-toned manner. Legato was not his forte this evening and one would accept the shortcomings as part of a far more attractive whole that includes his acting. I sincerely hope it was an off-night, for this is a truly gifted and generous artist.

His Adina, Anna Samuil, whose metallic soprano suggest very little charm and sensuousness, was able to make little of the Schiller Theater’s difficult acoustics, often drowning other singers’ on stage with her vocal health. Her interpretation turned around coyness – and the qualities of morbidezza, tone colouring and poise that lie in the core of what bel canto is about were not entirely there. I am not crazy about Alfredo Daza’s grainy baritone, but he too is a good actor and could deal with the intricacies of Donizettian phrasing in a way that made sense with the boorish role. Alfonso Antoniozzi is the kind of buffo who would rather make comic voices and shift to parlando and other disfiguring effects instead of using his substantial voice in a more regular manner. That used to be the rule in this role until some basses have tackled it in a more musical approach that retained the perkiness nonetheless. He too is at ease with the requirements of comedy acting and is very much at ease on stage. Finally, Narine Yeghiyan was far more attentive to the text than most Gianettas, but a brighter tone would make it easier for her in ensembles.

Although Antonello Allemandi could offer the right animation and produce a more Italianate sound for the Staatskapelle – I don’t know if my parterre seat was in a bad spot acoustically speaking – I found the orchestra dry-toned, brassy and band-like. There were interesting moments with beautiful woodwind solos, but the results were too often unpolished, especially in ensembles where the amount of mismatch was rather high.

Percy Adlon’s 2002 production is agreeably unpretentious and involves a very deal of spontaneity. The chorus has plenty of opportunity for acting and does it very convincingly, Villazón’s many ad libs do not stand out, since his colleagues respond to it most willingly – and by the end you’ll find the show far more entertaining than many a more ambitious production.

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I wrote only yesterday about the redeeming powers of an exceptional musical experience in the context of a shabby old production. Thomas Langhoff’s 1999 staging for the Berlin Staatsoper is as provincial looking as can be (it is very similar to the one shown in the Estates Theatre in Prague – and I don’t mean this as a compliment) – sets and costumes are anachronistic and display very poor taste, when they don’t look downright cheap, but differently from what I saw in the Deutsche Oper yesterday, the Spielleitung is very efficient and the sense of comedy timing is never lost. More than this, these singers natural abilities are well taken profit of and some scenes seemed almost spontaneous (something remarkable in a performance of Le Nozze di Figaro, an opera in which things tends to be a little bit look-how-I’ll-do-this-and-how-I’ll-do-that).

However, the acting is hardly the reason why this evening’s performance was remarkable – here the laurels go to Daniel Barenboim. I have both his recordings (English Chamber Orchestra with Heather Harper and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Berlin Philharmonic with Lella Cuberli and Andreas Schmidt) and find them ponderous and poorly acquainted with Mozartian style and I was bracing myself for a long evening. But fortune favors the bold – although the conductor does not care very much for clearly articulated phrasing, the Staatskapelle Berlin in top form could find clarity in its rather legato-ish approach to fast passagework in the overture, which counted with clean attacks and a flowing but not hectic pace. During the whole evening, the maestro seemed to ponder how fast every number should be by the criteria of expressiveness and polish. He proved this evening to have understood the way Mozart operas benefits from a “concertante” approach, in the sense that soloists and orchestra were always presented in the same perspective, with singers and woodwind responding to each other in structurally commendable and exquisite sounding organicity. If singers needed a bit more intimacy, the orchestra would shift together with them to a softer yet positive sound. Voi che sapete, for example, sounded wholly fresh to my ears – every shift of mood perfectly rendered, oboes and clarinets increasingly seductive during the arietta.  The conductor never lost from sight that great comedy always operates on the thin line that separates the funny from the touching, and, while avoiding cuteness, these characters’ feelings were never made fun of. Riconosci in questo amplesso, for instance, has its moments of physical comedy, but it also portrays a mother finding a long lost son – and, as R. Strauss would say of Der Rosenkavalier, one should have one eye dry and the other one wet here. And so we had this evening. My hat for Barenboim – this was Mozart playing of top level, and that he has achieved that relatively late in his successful career only confirms that he is truly a great musician.

Mozart operas tend to be cast from the ensemble in German and Austrian opera houses – and it is relatively lucky that the Staatsoper has so many great singers under permanent contract. Dorothea Röschmann is the Susanna in the video from this very production (with Emily Magee and René Pape) and has since then developed into big lyric roles and had to pay some price for it (she had cancelled some performances and her recent Donna Elviras involved sometimes a Mi tradì transposed down). I am, however, glad to report that this invaluable singer is finding her way back to the top of the game. Her Countess is featured both in a video from London (with Miah Persson and Gerald Finley) and from Salzburg (with Anna Netrebko and Bo Skovhus), but her performance this evening was clearly better than in both these recordings. Although she comes close to holding to dear life by the end of the stretta of Dove Sono (the high a’s were there all right, but they felt like high c# sharps in her physical effort, and the high c’s in Susanna or via sortite were abandoned for the ossia*), this evening she sang with more seamless sense of legato and scaled down more willingly (and comfortably) to piano when necessary. In terms of interpretation, she is a singer who always gets to the heart of the matter – and if one will recall smoother renditions of Porgi, amor, this one unmistakably had a broken heart.

This evening’s Susanna was both enchanting and disappointing. Anna Prohaska is a highly intelligent singer, with stupendous Italian pronunciation, REAL understanding of the text (I had to write that in capital letters, for she found more original and insightful turns of phrasing than almost anyone else since Lucia Popp), sense of style, acting skills and personal charm, but the voice itself is simply too small-scaled for Susanna. It comes in one basic silvery color, but not “silvery” enough to pierce through in ensembles, and her low notes – the fact that you could hear them is commendable in itself – were produced in something very close to Broadway belting. I am not saying that she should never sing Susanna – but I am not sure if she should sing this role now. One could say that Popp, Cotrubas, Freni et al sang this role when they were very young. But those were very different voices, I am afraid. I hope Christine Schäfer has some good and honest friends kind enough to tell her that she should take a break and think about what she has been doing. In the last three years, I have only seen her in bad shape, but this evening it was a bit more serious than this. Considering that the role is Cherubino – and that this singer has ventured into singing Violetta Valéry in La Traviata a few years ago – and that she could barely make it this evening, this cannot be seen as normal. She is a singer I had known and liked from recordings (the Mozart/Strauss CD with the Berlin Philharmonic and Abbado was a favorite of mine for a while) – and it would be sad to see her going down so soon.

Artur Rucinski was a clean and poised Count Almaviva. He lost a bit steam for his big aria, but that did not prevent him from offering clear divisions and a good trill even then. Vito Priante was a most likeable Figaro, in his spontaneous, resonant voice, crystal-clear diction, rhythmic buoyancy and sense of comedy. He does belong in this repertoire and I hope to hear more from him (so far, I knew him from baroque opera recordings). Finally, Maurizio Muraro was an excellent Basilio and Katherina Kammerloher, shorn of her aria, was a fresh-toned Marcellina.

* This may sound picky, but I firmly believe that the Countess should sing her high c’s in this scene. If one remembers Kathleen Battle’s claims for the prima donna dressing room in the Met in the 1980′s, the answer should be clear: “the prima donna is the one with the high c’s, the trills… and the big aria”.

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I was not going to write a third review of a performance of August Everding’s production of Die Zauberflöte for the Berlin Staatsoper (no1 and no2), but then the experience of seeing it in the Schiller Theater was new for me. It works surprisingly well in the more “modern” auditorium, where everybody can see the sets from the right perspective. I don’t know if they have been “retouched”, but this time I did not have the impression of decay that I had last time.

It is impossible to compare from memory Julien Salemkour’s conducting back in 2009 and this evening’s performance. Back then the I wrote of egg-timer approach; this evening, the fast speeds seem more coherent, even if some numbers seemed entirely devoid of charm in the oversprightly beat (Bei Männer, for example). Although she still has the occasional intonation lapse, this was the best Pamina I have ever heard from Adriane Queiroz. Her voice is still on the rich side for Pamina, but she was able to keep it focused and light throughout, sounding unusually creamy-, fruity-toned and youthful. Anna Siminska’s soprano was so shallow in her first aria that I feared for the worst in her second one. As with every “professional” Queen of the Night, she could probably sing Der Hölle Rache in her sleep – and it sounded like that. Joel Prieto was almost ideally cast, ardently sung in his firm, spontaneous tenor. He did have some excessively open-toned moments in an almost Neapolitan way, but all in all he was one of the best Taminos I have recently seen. Even if Roman Trekel’s Papageno sounds even rougher these days, I cannot resist his boorish approach for the role – I am afraid I would trade a smoother tone for his truly funny performance. Alexander Vinogradov is an ample-voiced, stylish Sarastro. His extreme low notes were reliable if lacking a bit of space and he lacks the nobility of tone of a René Pape – a very commendable performance in any case.

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