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Posts Tagged ‘Staatsoper im Schiller Theater’

This year’s Berlin Staatsoper Festtage’s operatic première is Claus Guth’s new staging of Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten under Zubin Mehta, whom I had previously seen in the same theatre some years ago conduct Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus with the same leading soprano seen this evening.

Mehta has one recording of Salome with the Berlin Philharmonic to his credit, but he is hardly a regular in what regards the operatic production of the Bavarian composer. Although I cannot tell how often he conducted Die Frau ohne Schatten in his long career, the first impression I had today was of extreme caution. To his defense, the Italianate orchestral sound, very transparent and light, was very flattering to his cast and made for great vertical clarity. I would not say, however, that structural clarity was truly there, since the complex poliphony concocted by Strauss was shown rather at face value, some important motivic references sunk into the background of restatement of musical ideas already presented as they were shown before or among accompaniment figures. When one listens to Herbert von Karajan’s live recording from Vienna (with Leonie Rysanek and Christa Ludwig), one can see how helpful the masterly hand of the conductor can be in guiding his audience through this multilayered score. Thus, Mehta’s tool to achieve “legibility” was a certain kind of fastidiousness that involved a regular beat in a very steady and considerate tempo. This was again very helpful for his singers, but did not help to provide the necessary theatrical effects. The end of act II, where the stage director too seemed to have had lost his hand, was this approach’s main victim – the impression was rather of politeness in its clean transversal of the tricky harmonic development. Compare it to Karl Böhm’s broadcast (from Vienna? I would have to check, again with Rysanek and Ludwig) and the Austrian conductor will knock you out in an awesome display of excitement and precision. Most surprisingly, though, was the positive effect of the Indian conductor’s organized and restrained view on act III, here unusually subtle and coherent in his unifiying control of the proceedings. As the last act rarely works out in live performances, I left the theatre with the sensation of witnessing something special.

In any case, the cast gathered for these performances would make sure that this was something special. I have always admired Camilla Nylund’s solid technique and tonal warmth, but this evening she offered a performance of outstanding finesse and beauty, floating velvety sounds throughout her range even in the most impossibly difficult passages, without ever disregarding clarity of enunciation and the dramatic demands of every scene, including the Kaiserin’s act  III melodram, not a small feat for someone whose first language is not German. She was ideally contrasted with Iréne Theorin’s powerful and bright-toned Färberin. The Swedish soprano was in exceptionally good voice, particularly smooth in the middle register that is not usually her forte. She could float beautiful mezza voice, even in very high-lying passages and scored many points in subtleness. Only in her act III duet with Barak, her intent of singing softly taxed her, but she soon recovered to her best form, adding stunning dramatic acuti to a performance abundant in vocal excitement.  Burkhard Fritz sang the part of the Kaiser with clean sense of line and something very close to the spontaneity of an Italian tenor, but his high notes soon became tight and, somewhere in the middle of his act II solo, he started to sound tired and dealt with the rest of the part with prudence rather than abandon. This is my third Barak from Wolfgang Koch and probably the best one. Although the conductor challenged him with slow tempi, his bass baritone sounded generously round and rich. Moreover, his personality is extremely proper to this role. I leave the best for last. I had seen Michaela Schuster’s Amme in Salzburg with Christian Thielemann, but found it small-scaled. Now I am inclined to believe that the unimaginative production must have straitjacked her (and the smaller auditorium in Berlin is an undeniable advantage), for this evening she just stole the show, even in such prestigious company. She projected her high mezzo insolently, handled the text in a way that would make Meryl Streep envious and twisted the audience around her little finger. During the directorial miscalculations in the end of act II, she proved to be a secret weapon, commanding everyone’s attention with her precise body movements and facial expression. Bravissima.

Although Jung-Sang Han showed an attractively dark tonal quality to his Erscheinung des Junglings and Barak’s brothers (Karl-Micahel Ebner, Alfredo Daza and Grigoery Shkarupa) were unusually smooth sounding, the voices of the unborn/imaginary servants to the Dyer’s Wife were not properly cast. The impression was of extreme effortfulness, what ruined the effect of every one of their “appearances” .

Claus Guth’s new staging is inspired by August Strindberg’s Dream Play, the oneiric atmosphere being the perfect excuse for many sensible and clever solutions for many of the unrealistic stage instructions. It also allowed him to deal with the mirrored structure of the story by showing the Dyer’s Wife and the Nurse as projections of the Empress’s own personality and Barak as an idealized version of the Emperor. Here, the Empress, as in many other stagings, is a patient in an institution, suffering from something very close to catatonia. Then the libretto’s most problematic feature (i.e., that the Emperor is punished by the Empress’s inability to produce a shadow) is avoided by showing her as the one “turned to stone”. The dramatic moment in which she demands to be punished by Keikobad is nothing but her seeing herself bed-ridden in the hospital. However, the most curious dramatic device developed by the director is the fact that the patient does not recover. Her disease is actually her only way of achieving her connection to a husband a children she cannot really deal with in real life. Although there was some booing in the audience, I have to say this is unfair: this was alright a bizarre solution, but surprisingly one that delivered the best act III I have ever seen either in the theatre or in videos. I won’t say “if I had to change something”, for I would have changed a couple of things, but I couldn’t help finding the video projections subpar in quality. More creative images in sharper quality would have done all the difference in the world. Christian Schmidt’s sets and costumes were otherwise beautiful and very efficient.

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I remember having read a long time ago in an Italian dictionary an anecdote about a group of monks who gave shelter to some women in a very cold night. In the morning, they were found sleeping in the same room because it was the only one sufficiently warm. As the abbot found them and demanded an explanation, the answer was “tutto è permesso agli innocenti” (everything is permitted to the innocent man”). After a puzzling second act during which stage director Dmitri Tcherniakov gave me more questions than answers, this story did occur to me in the beginning of act III and inspired me to an interpretation of a staging that seemed outright incoherent until then.

To say the truth, act I was not problematic. This is not my first Parsifal in which the grail ceremony involves extracting blood from Amfortas’ wound for the consumption by the congregation. Claus Guth’s staging seen in Barcelona and Tokyo turned around a very similar ritual in a concept that turned around blood (also in the sense of “family ties”) and I somehow expected a similar development this evening. But that was my mistake. Here Klingsor is some sort of goofy schoolmaster in a school for girls. The sets were identical to act I, but now they were full white. As Kundry seems to be some sort of counsellor, I could not help thinking of Sabina Spielrein’s Dyetski Dom, the methods of which have been accused of stimulating the premature sexuality of children. In the beginning of her long scene with Parsifal, Kundry’s “professional”  approach and Parsifal’s insight about his mother angrily interrupting his first sexual encounter with a girl seemed to confirm this interesting psychoanalitic view. Wagner’s text serves the purpose: Kundry directs Parsifal into self-discovery until the kiss. Although Spielrein’s own experience involved a romantic affair with her psychoanalist (i.e., Carl Jung), the comparison started to fall apart then. Parsifal sleeps over and only in the morning has the epiphany about Amfortas. From that point on, Kundry contents herself to behave like a rejected lover. If I still wanted to defend the Spielrein-angle, both she and Kundry have been “diagnosed” with hysteria. But to say the truth, by then even this point of view seemed uncomfortable and artificial.

This takes me to my own “epyphany” in act III. As in every production of Parsifal, act III shows a decayed version of the sets of act I until the moment when Parsifal shows Kundry the toy knight involved in his traumatic episode with his mother, while Kundry shows him a doll just like the ones the girl in the white school had. It is true that the male/female symbolism of the grail and the spear are in the core of this libretto, but the toys here gave it a whole new level of understanding. The main theme of this staging actually is the destruction of innocence by the establishment of prohibitions. The whole purpose of the grail knights was to achieve purity (i.e., innocence) by following a set of rules and vows. From that point on, a line had been drawn between guilty and innocent ones. Then there is Klingsor, who cannot fit into either side and decides to act out innocence. His white school is the theatre of innocence, the illusion of innocence. That is why he is more childish than the girls around him – he has to be more innocent than innocence itself. This is what Parsifal realizes – that there was no guilt in Amfortas. As much as the young Parsifal was accused of depravity by following a natural inclination, Amfortas was tainted by his encounter with Kundry. And we can infer that he had very little notion of what was going on there until he was charged with sinful behavior. Therefore, the moment when Parsifal say “sei heil – entsündigt und entsühnt!” is more than rhetorics. Innocence is not the aim, it is the starting point. One has to BE innocent to achieve enlightenment: everything is permitted to the innocent. He or she needs no rule, because everything is redeemed by innocence. That is why the redeemer is redeemed – the simple conviction of innocence makes everything permissible. The very institution of the grail knights makes redemption impossible: it just creates guilty ones.

All that said, the closing scene could be somewhat testing. When we see Kundry and Amfortas openly kissing, we understand why she had to seduce Parsifal: to regain her own innocence, which she seemed to have found when she was confronted with Amfortas’ innocence. But that is the moment Gurnemanz stabs her to death (she does not die “naturally” here as it is described by the libretto). The fact probably is that Kundry has to die. Although she truly wants to be innocent again, her very nature is to seduce. If she is not a seductress, than she is nothing. As she herself probably knew from her desire of “peace” and “rest” , death is her path to innocence, the state in which she can do no harm. Is this a sound analysis? Probably not, but then the staging is so overambitious and unclear and all over the place that one is allowed his or her share of misunderstanding. Although I very much like the idea that institution is doomed to destroy what it was supposed to protect and that the idea of purity could be interpreted as some sort of empowerment (instead of the usual negative agenda almost inevitably associated in the context of the Wagner family and the pre-war Bayreuth festival), I am not sure if this staging serves this idea as efficiently as it should. Also, although Tcherniakov usually offers scrumptious scenery and costumes to make powerful visual statements, I find this staging rather tame and uneventful in this department.

The sense of emptiness was actually highlighted by Daniel Barenboim’s idiosincratic conducting. After a prelude of unusual structural clarity, the performance seemed to collapse under its own ponderousness. Although one could see that the aim was achieving a Furtwänglerian timelessness in which every note would sound to produce its complete sense, one would feel instead the blanks between these notes. Only an impatiently built Verwandlungsmusik suggested some sense of unity. Act II sounded particularly disjoint and lacking building tension, an impression made more evident by the conductor’s keeping his dynamic range under leash to help his leading lady. In any case, the Staatskapelle Berlin’s consistent beauty of sound offered some compensation.

Anna Larsson’s incursion in soprano repertoire is an undeniable sign of courage. She must have nerves of steel to keep producing high notes in every dynamic range so consistently in spite of the very obvious effort. The problem remains that – although she can keep a sense of line even when things turn out really unfavorably to her – intonation could be hazardous, the tonal quality was often very breathy and colorless. In any case, it is a voice of unusual warmth, and that prevented her from producing ugly sounds. If there were some exceptional theatrical intelligence and charisma à la Waltraud Meier, she could have got away with it. As it was, this was rather an experiment of discutable success. The same cannot be said of her Parsifal. It is true that Andreas Schager is not a stage animal, but he showed himself fully engaged in fulfilling some very strange directorial choices. And his singing was just exceptional. He phrases with unusual clarity, musicianship and variety and also produced consistently youthful, bright and firm sounds that projected forcefully into the auditorium. This was Wagnerian singing of very high standards. His scenes with René Pape’s masterly Gurnemanz were the apex of this performance. The German bass was at his best, pouring forth exquisite, voluminous sounds in all registers and also featured the textual intelligence of a Lieder singer. It is curious that the first Gurnemanz I have ever seen live, Matthias Hölle, was this evening’s Titurel, his voice still big and dark. Stage directors seem to have an increasing fancy in undressing the baritone in the role of Amfortas and it seems that the amount of skin shown is directly proportional to the level of miscasting. This evening, the throatiness and graininess were another evidence of that rule. Finally, Tomas Tomasson was a firm-toned, rather metallic Klingsor, very much at ease with the director’s curious choices for this role.

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I understand that Weber’s Der Freischütz with its hunter chorus, bridal wreath song and farmers shouting Hussa! may seem extremely kitsch if you happen to be born in Germany. It is considered by many the quintessential German opera, and it is rarely performed outside German-speaking countries (although it is a fundamental work to understand the aesthetics of German opera… and it doesn’t hurt the fact that it is also a masterpiece superior in quality to many works more usually seen in opera houses around the world). This makes the audience hostage to the discomfort of German opera directors who believe that their sacred mission is to save the opera from itself. Hunters singing tra la la la can only be shown if in the context of a joke, not to mention the “embarrass” of allowing a pious hermit warning the audience against the temptations of evil…!  I actually have seen a Freischütz staged by a non-German director, but it seems that he found it too harmless and tried to spice it up, to diastrous effects. In any case, nothing in my experience comes as so ineffective as Michael Thalheimer’s lazy, reluctant, sterile production.

Premiered only last year, Thalheimer’s staging takes place in some sort of black, barely lit conical cave where all scenes look like the Wolfschlucht scene. Actually, the Wolfschlucht scene is probably the one that looks less like the Wolfschlucht scene, for there is no forging going on there. The opening number is actually more scary with farmers shown as zombies carrying dead branches in the dark. When someone is supposed to act, this is understood of performing some sort of contorsions and uncomfortable postures that made the audience laugh. Most of the dialogue is replaced by either nothing or grunts by an omnipresent Samiel who looks like a hoolingan who passed out in the mud. I could go further, but differently from Mr. Thalbach, I would like to spare those who like this opera from this nonsense.

When you think that the single set does not serve any dramatic purpose other than looking invariably spooky, you discover that it has the dubious advantage of working as an acoustic shell, amplifying the chorus to deafening proportions and overshadowing a Staatskapelle in great shape. Conductor Alexander Soddy subscribes the Carlos Kleiber approach (curiously not in the act I Ländler scene), with zipping excitingly clear articulation from his strings and hearty playing from brass instruments. Were it not for the imbalance with the stage and the Schiller-Theater’s extremely dry acoustics, this could have been very close to an orchestral tour de force.

Promoted to the role of Agathe, Dorothea Röschmann offers her customary clear diction and the alertness to the text of a Lieder singer. Even if her voice is warm and sturdy, it is unfortunately unsuited for this part. Her big aria started uncomfortably, seemed to settle for a clean and firm stretta that ultimately tested her sorely in the final bars, a shriek standing for the high b written by the composer. Most surprisingly, the long lines in her act III prayer seemed beyond her possibilities and she seemed to need too many breath pauses to get to the end of any phrase. Only in the closing scene, she seemed in her element, producing rich, velvety sounds without difficulty. Her Ännchen, Evelin Novak offered a commendable performance, coping with the technical demands of her role with abandon and musicianship. A little bit more charm and a more individual tonal quality would have left nothing to be desired. At this point, it seems that Andreas Schager has sung too many Siegfrieds to be truly convincing as Max. Even if the Austrian tenor’s projection is truly extraordinarily clean and forceful, he seemed helpless when facing the needs of softening his tone, producing quieter dynamics or phrasing with poise and expression. His aria sounded unsubtle and occasionally imprecise in what regards intonation and note values. At moments, his tenor seemed edgy or taut, as if he were experiencing some sort of fatigue. The name of Tobias Schabel does not ring a bell, but his performance of the difficult role of Kaspar was very capable. It is not the big voice we are used to hear in the role and it also has some grainy patches, but he sang it with animation, long breath, clear divisions and the right amount of roughness. Jan Martiník was a noble-sounding Hermit, Roman Trekel a firm-toned Ottokar and it was endearing to find Victor von Halem, still admirably resonant, as Kuno. Finally, I must say that Peter Moltzen was, vocally speaking, the best Samiel I have ever heard, speaking his line with the right piercing edge.

 

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Gounod’s Faust is an opera of extreme circumstances: although it was one of the most performed titles in XIXth century, it has become something of a rarity these days (the Met has proven otherwise faithful to the work that inaugurated its old theatre); although it has this utterly German subject, it is entirely French in style and atmosphere. Karsten Wiegand’s 2009 production for the Berlin Staatsoper (here shown as recreated in Weimar in 2011) is accordingly extreme: it could have been featured in Zitty magazine in its Mauerfall sensibilities. Here the devil comes from the West and wears Prada. His modus operandi is based on money: once he enrolls good old Dr. Faust, their aim is using, abusing and discarding the people once their sweet dreams are over. Poor old Gretchen believes her faith will save her soul, but the pious Easter chanting is sung by a golden elite presided by none other than the devil himself (obviously in praise of themselves). In other circumstances, this could be called an oversimplification, but – all things considered – it is an efficient and powerful oversimplification. For an old production, it looks remarkably fresh and soloist and chorus seem comfortable with it.

The edition used by the Staatsoper follows the staging’s convenience: some cuts are made, usual excisions are opened and some numbers are rearranged (the Golden Calf song is here sandwiched with Faust’s and Marguerite’s big arias). Simone Young offers a very expressive account of the score, warmly played by the Staatskapelle and abundant in beautiful solos from her musicians, the violin in Salut, demeure more poetic and haunting than the singer. I have the impression that there could have been a little bit miss rehearsing, so that the concertati sound truly synchronized.

I confess that I was not dying to hear Tatiana Lisnic’s Marguerite as a replacement for Krassimira Stoyanova. Fortunately, she sounds really better live than in recordings. Even if the voice is not particularly beautiful and her high notes are smoky and the low register still needs to be sorted out (… and the trill is not there), she sang with affection, charm and understanding of the dramatic situations. She could also take pride of place in ensembles, something I could not say of her tenor. Dulcet as Pavol Breslik’s voice sounds, it is helplessly small-scaled for this part. And the high c in his aria had more than one foot in the falsetto field. The idea of having Stephan Rügamer as “the old Faust” was not exactly great: the French language has the power of making his usually nasal tone entirely nasal.

Marina Prudenskaya was a firm-toned Siebel that could treat her lines a bit more gently – the first aria especially sounded on the fluttery side. The grains in Alfredo Daza’s baritone are starting to become loose in a way very close to wobbling. Valentin is a soldier and doesn’t necessarily need to seem smooth, but I don’t see the point of the increasing roughness.

If it is true that René Pape is no longer comfortable in the very end of his low register, he still makes good use of it in a role where he can do no wrong. He is the raison d’être of this performance, and those in the audience will be able to tell their grandchildren of having seen Pape’s Méphistophélés in the theatre.

I wonder what a Frenchman would say of the treatment French language received this evening. All singers had plausible pronunciation and made sense of what they were singing (in the case of Mr. Pape, more than this), but soprano and tenor sounded studied and were not always very clear about the differences between “e”, “é” and “è”.

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Unlike Pinky and The Brain, Sonya Yoncheva does not have a plan to conquer the world; she focus on one country at a time. Her journey has really got momentum in France, where she sang everything from Rameau to the three leading roles in Les Contes d’Hoffmann. Her next station was the USA, where her Gilda, Desdemona and Violetta have received rave reviews. Although she had already sung in Germany, a new production of La Traviata made specially for her at the Berlin Staatsoper with Daniel Barenboim seems to be the real beginning of her German “campaign”. I had seen her only once in four very exciting minutes of Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes in the anniversary gala of the Concert d’Astrée – and was eager for more (her lovely CD of French arias plus Violetta’s Sempre Libera made me even more curious), even if it meant having to sit through a whole Traviata. Especially one staged by Dieter Dorn, whose Nozze di Figaro for the Bayerische Staatsoper and Elektra for the Lindenoper are hardly my favorite productions, to put it mildly.

This evening’s Traviata did not made me change my mind. Salvador Dali and Philippe Halsman’s In Voluptas Mors, a photograph showing a skull built from seven naked bodies, is recreated live as an image in Violetta’s mirror, in the top of which there is a very drab looking brown bag supposed to be an hour glass, the sand falling on a writing table. Around it, there is a semicircular black wall with doors. It is a single set for a performance without intermission. This fact alone makes for very problematic situations: Alfredo says he does not have any fun when Violetta is not there – but she is there; Violetta says she is leaving for good, but she is still there. Since the set has almost no piece of furniture, everybody has to sit on the floor and lie down and crawl. This makes me believe that Germont, Snr., is visually challenged – Violetta is shoeless, disheveled, crouching near a wall, there is a lot of her thighs to be seen, and his opinion is “She is so ladylike”. Then he looks around at that rathole and adds “But how about a luxurious place such as this?”. In any case, one could have said: “ok, this is a very ugly Traviata; now let’s focus on everything else!”. But this would not be an easy task. There are some vey basic problems – the blocking is often nonsensical, singers are often uncomfortable with what they have to do and Yoncheva has always her arms stretched out as if she were swimming rather than walking and more than once twirls as a 6-year-old girl… in her anticipation of vortices of pleasure… I don’t want to publish a spoiler, but the death scene is truly embarrassing. Peter Mussbach’s old production was not faultless, but it is worlds apart from this one in atmosphere, Personenregie and insight.

Although I have never been keen on Daniel Barenboim’s Verdi, this evening he has set a new low in his records: to start with, the orchestral sound was so recessed, brassy and unsubtle that one could legitimately believe that the banda off stage was in charge the whole evening through. La Traviata is not one of Verdi’s most inspired examples of writing for the orchestra, and this demands an extraordinary effort from the conductor in order to produce musically and dramatically coherent and refined phrasing. The performance this evening could rather be described as mechanical in terms of rhythm, inexistent in terms of strings and non-functional in terms of expression. If one remembers that the orchestra is the Staatskapelle Berlin, this is even mind-boggling. A moment that exemplifies all the faults in this evening’s performance: the emotional peak in the whole opera is the act II Amami, Alfredo: it features the musical theme of the preludes to act I and act III, it comes as a culmination of a very difficult scene with a truly wide-ranging emotional aspect and it builds up to a vocal and orchestral climax. At this point, Ms. Yoncheva was trying to balance her strengths in a passage that tests her lyric voice. But then the orchestra was still comfortably in ppp. It erupted only abruptly for one second: Amami, AlfrE (outburst from the orchestra)-edo, Amami, quanto io T’A(another outburst)-amo. The effect seemed like cannon shots rather than a crescendo. Why?!

The success of La Traviata depends on the soprano in the leading role – and these performances have a clear advantage there. Sonya Yoncheva is simply the most interesting Violetta Valéry I’ve seen on stage. She knows exactly what every note and word means and does not take any second for granted. She kept me on the edge of my seat during the whole evening by virtue of her imagination and good judgment. To make things better, her voice is interesting in itself. It is not pretty in a classical way and at moments suggests the tonal “flashness” of a Callas (albeit in a lighter and smaller version) with the technical discipline of a singer who sang Mozart and Handel: until act III her passaggio was handled with unfailing precision, not to mention that her coloratura and mezza voce are very adept. And she masters the art of tone coloring – it is a voice that can caress and kill depending on the moment. So why am I not more excited about the performance as a whole? Intelligent, stylish and well-crafted as it was, it never sounded truly sincere. This was Sonya Yoncheva singing La Traviata, and it turned around her many talents, but Violetta’s emotional journey, from the intoxicated despair of act I, via the joys of the newly discovered sense of belonging even at the expense of happiness in act II, towards depression, mourning of her own dreams and hope of spiritual bliss in act III – all this was largely absent. Since act III is also the most challenging to her voice, the lack of a “vision” made this fact very clear. All that said, it is still the most interesting Violetta I’ve seen live (and I’ve seen some very good ones) and I reckon that apter production and conducting plus more experience in the role will make it closer to what it  is meant to be.

Her Alfredo was Moroccan tenor Abdellah Lasri. It is a very particular voice, something like: Joseph Calleja minus the vibratello, the idiomatic Italian, the imagination and the technical finish. Now being fair: he was evidently very nervous, and I am sure that the wrong notes, the frogs and the extra breath pauses probably won’t be there by the end of the run. But there already is plenty to cherish: the good taste, the mezza voce, the flexibility, the naturalness and the good size for a lyric voice. The all-round more complete performance this evening was, however, Simone Piazzola’s as Germont, père. His Renato-Bruson-like baritone may lack some volume in its higher reaches, but the style comes to him without effort and he alone seemed to have some real emotional connection with what was going on on stage, even if one might call the approach rather generalized compared to the prima donna’s meticulous understanding of her lines.

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René Jacobs and the Staatsoper in Berlin have a long history in reviving long-forgotten operas, such as Graun’s Cesare e Cleopatra, Haydn’s Orlando Paladino or Traetta’s Antigona. The most recent re-discovery is Georg Philipp Telemann’s Emma und Eginhard, first performed in Hamburg in 1728 in a gala event. This explains the original length of the opera (over four hours) and a cast list as long as R. Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier.

Even if René Jacobs professed an unbridled enthusiasm for this score, he himself found it safer to cut it to fit the three-hour limit. I thank him for this decision. Although the opera is almost entirely made of short arias on the fast-and-bright side, we are miles behind of the inspiration and insight of Handel’s Serse. Telemann did not master the art of giving any meaning to coloratura or of finding any depth of expression – he seemed to be contented to stay within the limits of prettiness. Actually, this is not true – by the end of the opera, when the plot acquires some seriousness and characters have to express their grief in a more direct manner, Telemann’s music can be quite touching, especially in the duet for sopranos or in Hildegard’s lament on her friend’s death sentence. If you left the theatre unimpressed, then it’s entirely Telemann’s fault. René Jacobs conducted a spirited and sensitive performance, with top-quality playing from the Akademie für alte Musik Berlin, including excellent French horn obligato in the best aria of the entire opera. Although director Eva-Maria Höckmayr tries too hard to add some political/historical/philosophical depth to a story perfectly effective in its cuteness, she does it without spoiling the fun: the staging is animated without being hectic, the Personenregie is detailed but not fussy and Julia Rösler’s costumes and Nina von Essen’s sceneries are exquisite and intelligent. Olaf Freese’s lighting is particularly effective too.

If something could be developed upon this would be the cast. Although these singers are all of them very reliable, only one or two truly master the style and use the writing to express an idea rather than dealing with it as a difficult task to get done with. The most important part is the role of Emma, which invariably gets the best arias in the score. As soprano Robin Johannsen sings it with complete sense of style, technical abandon and charm, the audience couldn’t help preferring her to her colleagues on stage. As the object of her affection, Nikolay Borchev proved to be truly adept with fioriture and other technical difficulties, but the tone is not intrinsically appealing and he is not truly at ease with baroque aesthetics. Although his German is accented, he makes sense of the text and is dramatically engaged. Stephanie Atanasov has a fruity, appealing mezzo and sang with some affection, but again this does not seem to be her repertoire. Baritone Gyula Orendt, on the other hand, has experience with baroque composers, and yet he seemed to be in a bad-voice day. Jan Martiník proved to have a comedy vein in his mock military aria and sang the final solo beautifully. Stephan Rügamer did not have much to sing, but the little we could hear makes me think that maybe he should have considered a career as a Bach tenor.

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German singers in Italian repertoire are a recurrent issue in these pages. I have often praised the cleanliness of line and keenness on interpretation usual with singers this side of the Alps, but have also found their Lieder-singing  word-by-word tonal coloring intellectualized and unconvincing and there is also the problem with unsupported low register and/or hard high notes. On the other hand, when a German-school singer understands the differences in approach and has flexible enough a technique, the results can be uniquely compelling – and you just have to hear any of Brigitte Fassbaender’s Verdi recordings to hear what I am talking about.

This is why I was so curious to hear the Berlin Staatsoper’s new production of Tosca, featuring both Anja Kampe in the title role and Michael Volle as Baron Scarpia. Kampe is a singer for whom I have a soft spot, in spite of a sometimes unruly high register. Her Fidelio in Vienna last December made me fear for her vocal health, but her Sieglindes are always attractively sung, even in a not-so-good day. Reading that she would appear in this Tosca came as a surprise for me, but, even if you don’t hear that in her singing, she had indeed studied in Italy. Furthermore, she has performed Italian roles there, most notably at La Scala. The first thing that should be noted about her Tosca is the crystal-clear diction and the excellent Italian pronunciation. The second thing is that the sound is intrinsically un-Italianate: the whole range is homogeneous, even the very strong low notes are well connected, the middle register is lusciously warm and dark in an almost pellucid way and the acuti are not bright and vibrant, but felt-like and projecting rather on sheer volume than on radiance. Although the high notes are not her selling feature, she was shrewd enough to get away with tricky passages by lightening the tone and shortening note values with portamento. Her mezza voce can sound a bit on the colorless side, and yet it still benefits from the naturally beautiful tonal quality and I do believe that she would gain from using something similar in her German roles too. Many members of the audience have found her performance ill-informed in terms of style, too direct and sober in approach, too short in vocal glamor and too proper in terms of characterization. They might not be essentially wrong. However, I beg to differ in my appreciation. The almost classical shapeliness of her phrasing is musicianly and free of any vulgarity or cheap emotionalism. Besides, the warmth and fruitiness of her middle register made many usually neglected passages sound like music rather than the eligibility period for the next high note. Truth be said, when things got high and stayed high, the impression was of caution rather than abandon. But that really seemed a reasonable trade-off for me. I would say that a different conductor would have put all that in perspective. But let’s speak of the singers first.

When it comes to Michael Volle, I am not so sure that the Italian excursion has truly paid off. First, his Italian is not natural as this evening’s prima donna. Second, his bad-guy expressive tool involve lots of snarling and the kind of hectoring that brings about either a overly forward or alternately woolly and gray-toned quality to more outspoken passages. At some point, he sounded plainly tired. Moreover, his interpretation was a series of variations of villainy. While singers like Ruggiero Raimondi could find a patrician quality that gave his Scarpia more three-dimensionality, or that even an exotic name such as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau brought about an eerily psychopathic side to the character, Volle pressed the same bad-and-loving-it key the whole evening and finally suggested telenovela rather than verismo.

There was one true Italian singer in the cast, Barenboim’s official “tenore”, Fabio Sartori. As always, it is a very rich and powerful voice, and he has more nuance that many other tenors in this repertoire. However, his singing has developed some sort of whimpering quality that becomes bothersome after a while. Also, he is not really engaged dramatically speaking, and his attempts of rising the emotional temperature invariably sounded calculated. Among the minor roles, Jan Martinik deserves praises for his unexaggerated Sacristan, his nobility of tone being no obstacle for a character role.

This is the first time Daniel Barenboim has conducted an opera by Puccini. And one can see that in the evident care he has taken with the score: all effects are cleanly understood and played out, the orchestra has a Wagnerian, Musikdrama-ish narrative quality and there is an evident intent of avoiding kitsch. Good as these intentions are, they ended on overcooking the procedures: everything was so intense and bright and forceful that you would take five minutes to adapt to it and notice that there was no progression in atmosphere, no increase in tension: it all sounded uniformly loud and driven. Except in what regarded pace – since the orchestral fireworks followed a logic of its own, it did not necessarily matched the tempo of the stage action. Worse: it seemed to be operating in an universe completely apart of the singers. The result was ultimately schizophrenic rather than heightened in expression by the combined work of all its elements.

My first impression of Alvis Hermanis’s production was that the projection of a cartoon with the story of Tosca over the poorman’s version of traditional sceneries would be distracting. And they were, but in a positive way. When one looked at the singers, one would see nonsensical blocking, silly Personenregie and lack of imagination, while the cartoons looked like Zeffirelli’s film with Raina Kabaivanska and Plácido Domingo. So, after a while, you would rather look at the screen than at the absurdity performed below. Examples: Tosca is generally kept 10 m apart from Cavaradossi while saying “you’re ruining my hairstyle” or “we shouldn’t do this in front of the Madonna”.  When Tosca says how much it would cost to bribe Scarpia, she reclines on a divan, her legs dangerously apart for the circumstances. Then he talks about sex – and she makes a what-made-you-think-of-something-like-that expression. Actually, this is not accidental, Mr. Hermanis is convinced that Tosca has a crush on Scarpia: although she barely touches the man she loves, she volunteers to kiss, grab, fondle etc the man she professes to hate. Even if one could assume something like that, the bluntness and the exaggeration are entirely self-defeating in a character who is shown as a Catholic woman who attends mass regularly, who tells her confessor everything and who is basically incapable of handling the situation in the cold-blooded way the director unsuccessfully tries to imply.

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