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Posts Tagged ‘Staatsoper unter den Linden’

For his only opera, Beethoven took no easy options and gave his musicians – either on stage and in the pit – no easy job. It is a work of extremes, it is a cry for freedom, it must be an overwhelming experience for all involved, the artists and the audience. Of course, for the musicians it is also another day at work. I.e.: although the idea that they would give their all in one performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio is very romantic, there are other performances in the run and even other work assignments. This must sound an overstatement, but those who have read Christa Ludwig’s biography know the temptation of giving too much in this of all operas and having to face the consequences later. In any case, almost everybody involved in this evening’s performance in the Staatsoper Unter den Linded need not to fear. This was a job almost entirely done on the safe side. Another day at the office, task completed. One can hardly blame their musicians for his or her own expectation of catharsis.

As my eight of nine readers might have guessed, this means I left the theatre frustrated. Believe it or not, this was my first Fidelio in Germany. It is a bit unfair that my last Fidelio, in the Vienna State Opera, fulfilled all my expectations and the “homecoming” to the Lindenoper after so many years in the Schiller-Theater made me wish for something unforgettable too. If someone has a great share of responsibility in my disappointment this would be Karl-Heinz Steffens. His conducting this evening could appear in the dictionary as the example of the bad meaning of the word kapellmeister. Not only his traffic cop duties were performed with little affection, but considering the high level of false entries his beat must be a bit difficult to follow. There was also a problematic approach to phrasing, as if the idea were to emulate Herbert von Karajan’s “smoothness” , what came across as simply as smudgy. The blunders with the French horns in Leonore’s big aria were just a symbol of everything that was not working properly this evening. Fortunately, the chorus was willing to give more and, when finally allowed to let loose, they showed how this performance should have been. Unfortunately these were the last five minutes of the opera.

It did not help either that the Leonore 2 was preferred to the Fidelio overture. Always when that happens, I can’t help thinking that Beethoven must have given a great deal of thought when he finally decided how this opera should begin. The fact that we had Marzelline aria before the duet with Jacquino, however, does not mean that this was an early version of the opera. Other than two noted differences, the regular final version of Fidelio seemed to have been adopted.

Harry Kupfer’s 2016 production for the Staatsoper actually has a great share of the low level of drama this evening. The director himself explains that it is a mistake to see Fidelio as a work that begins as a Spieloper, develops into a heroic opera until it finally settles as an oratorio, but curiously this is exactly how he stages it. After the overture, we see the chorus and the soloists as musicians in the Musikverein hall. Suddenly, the backdrop falls and they are in a prison. In the first finale, the prisoners shed their prisoner uniform and appear as themselves. The second act first shows Florestan as a tenor with the score of Fidelio. He then chains himself and “becomes” Florestan. The finale ultimo is performed again as a concert performance in the Musikverein, Don Fernando as the conductor and everybody reading from their scores. If you ask me if these directorial choices boost any theatricality, the answer is “no”. It drains Fidelio of its dramatic force, straitjackets the cast and denies Fidelio of its triumphant climax. This is the second time this week I have been denied the “triumph of goodness” and, if directors go on like that, I will have to resort to Walt Disney to find solace from the prevailing idiocracy in this world.

Simone Schneider’s rich, lyric soprano, rock-solid in bottom notes is judiciously used by a singer who knows her voice well and is fully prepared for a difficult task. She confidently sailed through Abscheulicher! without ever putting herself in danger, but this was a performance about the mechanics. Her voice lacks a cutting edge and act II showed her rather well-behaved and small-scaled. At some point, she sounded also a bit tired. In the end, one has to acknowledge her professionalism, but the character envisaged by Beethoven has little to do with what we heard tonight at the theatre. Curiously, Mandy Fredrich, who made a career as the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s Magic Flute, sounded similarly dispirited as Marzelline, rather unfocused in her high notes, even if she did not seem to find any problem in producing them. In the short but important role of Don Fernando, Arttu Katajan too sounded small-scale and lacking nobility.

Fortunately, the remaining singers in the cast inhabited a whole different universe. I am surprised by Klaus Florian Vogt’s fully committed incursion in the difficult role of Florestan. His was a rather Mozartian approach to the part, albeit one sung in a naturally voluminous voice and fully informed by the text. Even if his singing lacked powerful heroic top notes, this seemed coherent to his almost instrumental approach to the usually unsingable stretta of his aria. Actually, the unheroic quality of his singing scored many points in terms of theatre. This was rather the voice of a prisoner almost starved to death and kept alive by the dream of seeing his beloved wife once more time. This also made more sense in his pairing to Ms. Schneider’s also rather Mozartian Leonore. Moreover, one could bet that what Beethoven might have heard is closer to what we hard tonight than to what Klemperer offers in his recording (namely Christa Ludwig and Jon Vickers). Finding Falk Struckmann in firm voice after all those years of heavy use and was a very good surprise. His Pizarro was powerfully sung and he has no problem with sounding really nasty. In that sense, he was extremely well contrasted to René Pape’s utterly likable Rocco. Mr. Pape’s singing was predictably one of this evening’s greatest assets. Last but not least, Florian Hoffmann was a light-toned, vulnerable and congenial Jacquino.

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Nobody has to cry for Argentina because of the World Cup: they still have Daniel Barenboim, who brought them not the championship, but the Deutsche Staatsoper for a Gastspiel at the Teatro Colón involving a whole series of Brahms symphonies and Harry Kupfer’s staging of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

I have seen Barenboim conduct Tristan at the Lindenoper and at the Schiller-Theater, but the experience of hearing him in a different venue, especially in the famous acoustics of the Colón, was really illuminating.
In my opinion, Barenboim has no rivals in this score, unless we are speaking of recordings by the likes of Wilhelm Furtwängler, Herbert von Karajan or Karl Böhm. This evening’s performance was probably the most balanced Tristan I have ever heard from Barenboim, if not necessarily the most emotionally overwhelming. The more spacious and analytic acoustics may have something to do with that: one could hear an ant walking on stage. In terms of clarity, it felt like reading the score, but the sound picture was a bit more distant than one would experience in smaller venues such as those used by the Deutsche Staatsoper in Berlin. In any case, after a prelude in which the maestro took a while to fit in the brass section, the first act moved with a daringly – and difficult to pull off – gradual heightening of tension. There was no Birgit Nilsson or Jon Vickers in the cast and at first the atmosphere seemed almost casual in airy orchestral sound and leisurely tempi. Only when Tristan and Isolde were alone at last, the audience could feel that this was a culmination of an unbroken line that started on the first bar in the prelude.
Act 2 flowed most naturally in unexaggerated buoyancy and plenty of leeway for lyricism. The entrance of King Marke felt therefore like a reality shock. Truth be said, that scene lacked pathos and had to be electroshocked back to life in the last five minutes.  The final act, unfortunately, involved some adjustments to help singers, but one has to admire the conductor’s mastery in making the orchestra his main soloist nonetheless. The musicians in the pit alone were able to tell everything you need to know about Tristan’s spiritual anguish, and the strings, in soft yet rich sound, sang the Liebestod in a way that made the soprano unnecessary.
Anja Kampe is a singer I like in spite of her hard-to-overlook imperfections. Today both her assets and liabilities were pretty much in evidence. Her sensuous-toned soprano, particular warm in its lower reaches, is apt for the role of Isolde and she produced some powerful acuti when necessary, but she lacks projection and the middle register was often hard to hear. She is an expressive artist who never fails to communicate the meaning of the text in her singing either through tone coloring or word-pointing and offered many new insights. I was satisfied with the trade-off, but grey tonal quality and effort finally turned me off. The Liebestod sounded as if she was marking, and, well, as the saying goes, if you mess the last act, then you’ve messed the whole opera. In terms of acting, I confess I’ve seen a more dignified and feminine Waltraud Meier in it, and Ms. Kampe sounded a tad prosaic in comparison.
Angela Denoke is my first soprano Brangäne, and this evening I could understand why there are advocates of casting a high voice there. First, the role sounds less regal and some testing passages (such as the warnings in act 2) easier and more natural. Denoke has had her ups and downs in her career and she seems to have found a middle ground this evening. Her voice is still appealingly natural in sound, but she sounds a bit desperate when things get high and loud. Then she sounds hooty and pitch can be approximative. In compensation, she has very clear diction and acts famously. I would often find myself looking at her when other singers were in charge.
I have to confess that I was not eager to hear Peter Seiffert as Tristan once more. I had seen him both at the Deutsche Oper and in the Staatsoper in Berlin and it never ended very well. This evening, however, he was in good voice and avoided as much as he could to force his high g’s in an open tone as he has done as Siegmund in Salzburg . For the first two acts, he sang in youthful voice and with a welcome lyric quality and I even hoped he would go through act 3 unscathed. To his defense, I can say that once things went awry around his second big “monologue”, he was admirably cold-blooded enough to recover and sing more or less what he had to sing until his death scene. In terms of acting,  the interaction with the soprano and the baritone seemed to have had an effect on him. Although one still cannot use the word “engagement”, this showed undeniable improvement.
Boaz Daniel (Kurwenal) beefs up his baritone, but he sings with unshakable focus and has a very likable personality. Moreover, his voice, even darkened, is pleasant. Unfortunately, Kwangchul Youn was in an off-day and sang the part of King Marke in a tremulous and grainy voice.

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Often while I read a review of a French opera performance in Diapason magazine, where many a famous singer is dismissed for “not being French enough”, I think to myself that French should learn to accept the trade-off involved in the internationalization of their national repertoire, in the same way Italy and Germany have done without making such a fuss. However, this evening, while watching the performance of Chabrier’s L’Étoile in the Staatsoper Unter den Linden I guess I could finally understand their point. Of course, works like Bizet’s Carmen or Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande are complex enough to survive the acclimation, but the subtle charms of an operetta are far more sensitive to new environments.

Simon Rattle’s wish to highlight the multicolored orchestration was evident from bar no.1 and he produced some brilliant effects with the Staatskapelle Berlin, but those were often achieved at the expense of lightness – and this is a no go in this repertoire. Under the heavy-handed beats, sprightly rhythms finally sounded martial, chiaroscuro was drowned in loudness and clarity was often left to imagination. I have to confess I was finding everything quite silly until I got home and played back my old recording with the Opéra de Lyon and John Eliot Gardiner and then was reminded of how delightfully kitsch the whole thing could be if one leaves it space to breathe and naturally move on.

The cast did not make things actually easier. The only francophone singer this evening, Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (Roi Ouf Ier) obviously established an authentic atmosphere whenever he was on stage. However, at this point in his career, his command of high tessitura is no longer faultless and, even if he cheated with savoir-faire, one wanted a bit more freedom in these high-lying phrases over the chorus and other soloists. Giovanni Furlanetto (Siroco) proved to have reasonably fluent French and found no difficulties in this writing, but his vowels could be some times too dark to achieve complete clarity. Among the women, only Stella Doufexis (Aloès) could produce the necessary chic in her pearly high mezzo soprano.

Although Juanita Lascarro has nothing to be ashamed of her Laoula – her soprano is seductive enough at least – she lacks the bright high register to shine atop ensembles as she is expected to do and her French is mostly indistinct. Magdalena Kozena is not entirely idiomatic either, but her diction is far clearer. Her high register always had a certain “constricted” quality that gave her a certain reedy charm, but this seems to have developed to downright strain and uneasiness. All ascent to top notes were marked by absence of legato and loss of tonal quality. To make things a bit more problematic, the lower end of her range also proved to be recessed and mostly inaudible. Her acting was most convincing, but the jauntiness did not made into her singing, which was quite unvaried and expressive in the wrong way – not natural enough as this music require. She had her moments, of course, such as in the quator des baisers, where her repeated calls for Laoula seemed infused in with sensuousness. I hope that this was only a bad day. Douglas Nasrawi’s Hérisson de Porc Épic involved a lot of ungainly vocal production, but Florian Hoffmann proved to be a most efficient Tapioca.

Baritone Dale Duesing is enjoying a second career as stage director. In this production, he does not seem to want to interfere too much in the action (what is positive), but too often offers slapstick clichés and abounds in silly choreographies (yes, I know…). I do not know if I like Boris Kudlicka’s scenery – it certainly looks like what one would see in an uncreative staging of a vaudeville play, but the point of the complicated change of sets escapes me, unless the idea was to produce an excuse to introduce more Chabrier into the proceedings. In any case, the homogenous good level of acting from all soloists is something to be praised.

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The Staatsoper Unter den Linden’s Festtage is one of the world’s most puzzling festivals in the world – basically you are offered the same operatic productions showed during the year with more or less the same casts, but with a far more expensive ticket price. One could say that this is an opportunity to see a showcase of the Lindenoper’s best productions – but that is not the case either. There is nothing special about their current Tristan und Isolde – and Achim Freyer’s Onegin is one of the most embarrassing  productions ever shown to an audience. It is ugly, pointless and confusing. The three-dimensionality of Puschkin’s characters as conveyed into music by Tschaikovsky is what makes this opera a masterpiece – and it is an offense to both writer and composer to see them reduced to semaphoric puppets. Pity – it is a beautiful opera. If someone had explained it to the director, he would probably like it.

As a compensation for the horrors shown on stage, Daniel Barenboim offered a grandiose, quasi-Wagnerian account of the score in its large orchestral sound, almost feverish intensity and flexibility of tempo. The Staatskapelle Berlin played it to the manner born – deep, rich, warm string sounds and expressive woodwind solos. The orchestra alone was a pleasure in itself. The cast here gathered had no weak link and it is doubly commendable that they could sing so expressively straight-jacked by the silliest stage direction in the galaxy.

Although Anna Samuil’s soprano tends to acidity in the most outspoken moments, she masters the art of evoking girlishness and innocent radiance elsewhere. She is particularly adept in conveying spontaneity in conversational passages in her natural middle register and avoidance of aggressive break into chest voice. She was probably the only soloist who has survived the ludicrous scenic choreographies with her expressive eyes and the concentration of her movements. She was ideally partnered by Maria Gortsevskaya’s Olga, who was able to produce warm sounds without suggesting a matron (a too usual mistake in the role). That said, Katharina Kammerloher’s mezzo still sounded too young in comparison to her daughters’ voices. Margarita Nekrasova’s spacious contralto, on the other hand, couldn’t be better suited to Filipjewna. She should be a great Erda – I hope that Barenboim remember her in his next performances of the Ring.

Artur Rucinski’s warm and dark baritone suggested a handsome and elegant Onegin. This Polish singer gave us a stylish and firm-toned performance. Some high-lying passages seemed a tiny bit tense, but he used it to good dramatic purposes. The glamourous casting of René Pape as the Prince Gremin was an extra treat to the audience in its outpouring of velvety sounds. All that said, I guess my four or five reads are probably curious about my impressions on Rolando Villazón’s Lensky. As I do not speak Russian, I cannot say how idiomatic he was. But I can certainly report on a most sensitive performance from this Mexican tenor. Although some high notes could be more strongly supported, he produced seamless legato, shaded his voice to touching effects and never sang with less than full commitment. And his tenor remains extremely pleasant, with a solid middle and low registers. His big aria was particularly heartfelt in its intimate melancholy. These purely lyric roles suit him and I hope that, after the ordeal he recently went through, he avoid heavy repertoire from now on.

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Puccini’s La Bohème is the kind of opera that does everything to please you – it is easy on the ear, everybody can relate to the plot (no gods or heros here – just ordinary people meeting each other and trying to make the best of it before death finally comes to put an end on it all) and it is also short enough for you to get a table in a restaurant afterwards. However, as much as people who try really hard to please you, operas like that will from some point on and then maybe forever make you sick with their docility. I have to confess that, although I still find Mimì’s dying process quite touching no matter how hard I try to snob it, I never feel like listening, let alone watching La Bohème.

You might be wondering why I am bothering to write all that about an opera I don’t really have patience to hear. The answer is that I have decided to give it a new try. Because I am in Berlin, a city where people are far from sentimental, I thought that maybe an objective approach to this opera could be possible. And that would be interesting – a staging that looks more like Ken Loach than like Franco Zeffirelli, I guessed, with a Straussian treatment to the orchestra and maybe some restraint regarding lachrimosity among singers. Well, I was wrong.

The Lindenoper’s staging of La Bohème looks like the destitute man’s Met production: it basically features the same ideas, but in their low-budget version. To make it worse, scenes involving chorus singers and extras are so poorly staged that you feel ashamed for whoever directed that. The cast, on the other hand, was able to pierce through the routine and try to offer something less mechanical. Anna Samuil clearly knows how a Puccini “little woman” should be portrayed and she is not afraid of trying, but her basic vocal and stage personality are heartily Russian. Her lyric soprano is sizeable enough and she has probably learnt with Mirella Freni’s recording how conversational passages should be handled in a natural middle register, but there is a Slavic metallic edge on her singing that makes her the opposite of vulnerable and her chest voice can be a bit brash. Her portrait was engaged, but not really spontaneous – and finally lacking affection. In spite of some top notes below true pitch, Adriane Queiroz’s Musetta was sung in sultry tone and with enough playfulness to build an almost three-dimensional coquette. One could tell that Charles Castronovo had a background in Mozart from his elegant phrasing, good taste and concern with the text. His high notes are not exuberant as many an Italian tenor’s, but he strangely seemed to benefit from that in order to integrate them in his legato approach. Alfredo Daza’s heaviness and graininess made him a particularly unfriendly Marcello. Christof Fischesser, on the other hand, was a rich-toned, straight-forward Colline. All involved were at least at ease with the acting demands – and the closing scene was particularly well-handled by the cast. It is a pity only that conductor Alexander Vitlin never went beyond surface, often offering indistinct orchestral sound and choosing effect instead of true musical expression.

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David Alden’s 2008 staging of Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia has become infamous out of Berlin as one tough regiequiz at parterre.com. Although guesses ranged from Johnny spielt auf to Salome, the truth is that the production is far less bizarre when seen live at the theatre. Without reading the program book, one easily recognizes the Fellinian atmosphere with its intentional splashes of kitsch from the 50’s. In this sense, Alden may be occasionally unfaithful to the libretto, but he is true to the spirit of Italian comedy. At any rate, the show is definitely fun – and the excellent level of acting from every member of the cast is its shining feature. One would even forgive therefore the less than ideal musical aspects this evening.

Conductor Riccardo Frizza never let pace sag, keeping excitement on during the whole evening, but the Staatskapelle Berlin’s hearty sonorities, beautiful as they are, may be too substantial for Rossini. Although the cast is far from modest in vocal heft, these singers often had to make an extra effort to pierce through the almost Beethovenian dense sounds that came from the pit.

In the key role of Fiorilla, Alexandrina Pendatchanska finally sounded convincing for the wrong reasons. Because of the shrill, curdled and unequal vocal production, no-one had any trouble to understand that she was playing the role of the shrew. She does have prima donna quality – breathtaking coloratura, a strong top register and personality to spare. However, I did not recognize hardly any bel canto quality in her performance – her diction is unclear, her legato is problematic and she seems to be incapable of producing a pure, clean cantabile line. She also tended to disappear in ensembles, what is curious for a high soprano. This is a singer who has been closely followed by many of us who saw an immense promise in her, but this promise has been taking a very long time to be fulfilled. In comparison, Katharina Kammerloher’s fruity high mezzo soprano sounded heavenly in the role of Zaida.

South African tenor Colin Lee offered a truly gracious performance as Don Narciso. He was probably the less gifted actor in the cast and that might explain the somewhat lukewarm applause, but one must acknowledge the pleasant tonal quality, the good taste, stylishness and solid technique. However, in a world where there are singers like Juan Diego Flórez and Lawrence Brownlee, one gets spoiled by more vocal exuberance, especially in high notes. I know many tenors tend to go for bel canto because of less competition and higher fees, but, considering the dire situation in Mozartian repertoire, Lee should give Tamino, Ferrando and Belmonte a second chance. Giovanni Furlanetto’s dark, forceful bass does have the right colour and size for Selim, but he is really tested by the fioriture. Almost every melisma was given the staccato treatment and, if the audience did not find fault in it, it is because he disguised that in the comedy-effect treatment. Alfredo Daza was an animated Prodoscimo, but his singing is so heavy that one felt fatigued just from hearing it. Among the basses, Andrea Concetti had the most spontaneous vocal quality, but his idea of singing buffo repertoire seems to be supporting only the high notes and being free about pitch.

When I read what I have written here, I feel that I might have given an overall negative impression. But that is not the case – this is the kind of performance in which the whole is more than the individual parts: the staging is genuinely funny and intelligent, everyone in the audience seemed to be having fun, the acting was truly admirable (Florian Hoffman’s Albazar was one of the best small-role stage performances I have ever seen) and singers had engaging personality and interesting voices.

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Superstar tenor Plácido Domingo has been around for a long while. Although his voice sounds amazingly fresh, the kind of heroic high notes required by leading Italian tenor roles are now beyond realistic possibilities. Since low register has never been a problem for him, why not try baritone roles then? The title role in Simon Boccanegra is not Verdi’s heaviest baritone role and one could also argue that the fact that Verdian baritone parts are usually too high should not be a problem for a tenor, even one short of his high c’s and b’s. On paper, this is all true. Not only on paper – Domingo can sing all the notes Verdi wrote for Simon Boccanegra. He even sings them stylistically and expressively. But does he sound convincing in the role? I am afraid not.

First of all, although his tenor has a bronze-toned quality, he does not sound baritonal at all. His low notes, easy as they are, do not possess real depth and his ascents to high notes are free from the intense quality a true baritone has. As a result, the lighter and slightly nasal tonal quality, weird as it sounds, make the character seem younger than he should and many a climax moment do not blossom as they should. Of course, Domingo is a clever, experienced singer and profits of every opportunity to make it happen. This evening, for example, he was announced to be indisposed and took advantage of the occasional coughing and constriction to depict Boccanegra’s decaying health.

The tenor in a tenor role this evening was Fabio Sartori, whose voice has the raw material of a important singer: it has a most pleasant blend of richness and brightness and more than enough carrying power, he can produce elegant phrasing and, of course, he is idiomatic and Italianate. Some of his top notes are impressively focused and powerful. But he can be clumsy while handling all those things and, in the end, you are too often wishing that he could make this or that a little bit better. He should also try to loose some weight if he wants to take some leading man roles these days. I finally had the impression that roles like Adorno will be soon too light for him. It is not unusual for dramatic voices in the making to be difficult to handle before the whole “mechanism” find its optimal modus operandi. I am curious to see what follows.

Anja Harteros’s creamy soprano and its exquisite floating mezza voce are hard to resist and she is consistently musicianly and sensitive. She is a good Amelia, but when things get too Italianate, she could be caught a bit short. Although there is always pressure for a singer with her qualities to deal with Italian roles, I do believe she should explore more German repertoire, which shows her under the best possible light.

In spite of the odd woolly moments, Kwangchul Youn was admirably sensitive and tonally varied as Fiesco – and his low register was particularly deep and rich. Hanno Müller-Brachmann was similarly forceful and dark-toned as Paolo – and he lived up to the expectations of his role’s difficult high notes.

As for Daniel Barenboim, I am afraid that Verdian style is beyond his immense skills. The orchestral sound is too soft-centered, the proceedings generally lack forward-movement, emotionalism is kept in leash. In this sense, the conducting matched Federico Tiezzi’s entirely uneventful production. Maurizio Balò’s sets look cheap, Giovanna Buzzi’s costumes look tacky and the stage direction is sketchy, artifficial and old-fashioned. The “choreographies” for chorus members is short of ridiculous. Considering that Italy is famous for design, I guess they bought this one in a highway outlet for operatic production.

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The Straussian credentials of the Philippe Jordan+Staatskapelle Berlin team have been more than sucessfully presented in this year’s season opening concert, when they treated the audience to an exemplary rendition of the Alpensinfonie.  Playing in the Lindenoper’s pit has not prevented them from offering a truly symphonic approach to Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. From the  first bars, one could feel that this would be a special evening: faultless French horn solos, glistening string playing, vivid woodwind. More than that – a conductor in complete control of his forces who could therefore concentrate on expression and drama.

Although the score features beautiful and touching vocal parts, the audience would turn to the orchestra tonight to find the multilayered portrayal of the character’s emotions. Maestro Jordan did not need to play effects, he could give himself and his musicians the necessary time to let notes speak – during the Feldmarschallin’s famous act I monologue, one would invariably be distracted from Hofmannsthal’s text by the richly coloured chamber-like writing for wind instruments. Act III showed such thematic clarity that one would never consider it a long stretch of unmelodic music between act II and the final trio, which did not fail to be the emotional highlight of the evening in its perfectly calculated dynamic and tempo ebb-and-flow .

So why was this performance finally not unforgettable? I am afraid that the answer is simply that a symphonic approach needs voices large enough to cope with a large orchestral sound – and rather than adding to the ensemble, the largely light-voiced cast gathered here was overshadowed by it. Although Anne Schwanewilms often produces some exquisite sounds, her lyric soprano is also often too thinly produced to be really heard over the full orchestra. When she really tried too sing loud, the results were often pinched, unflowing or rather edgy, not to mention that her method to reach high notes is basically pecking at them. She is an intelligent singer who uses the text effectively, but I wonder how long her technique will allow her to sing roles that require true legato in the high register.

Katharina Kammerloher is usually billed as a mezzo-soprano, but at least this evening one would take her for a soprano. At some moments, her voice even sounded similar to her Marschallin’s, although her basic tone is creamier and her top notes richer. Even if her Octavian was rather on the light and feminine side, it was also beautifully and stylishly sung. I have previously written that I was curious to hear Sylvia Schwartz in a high-lying role – and I was right to suspect that they work particularly well for her. As Sophie, she could explore the best part of her voice and float effortlessly velvety top notes. It is true that her soprano is a bit small, but Sophie rarely has to deal with heavy orchestral writing – and she also has the looks and the right attitude for the role.

I had never been convinced by Alfred Muff, whom I knew from recordings, and I was doubly surprised by his Ochs tonight. First, because his voice is far darker and larger than the microphones suggest. Second, because the part really fits his voice. He finds no problem with the very low notes and the declamatory writing. He has some fondness for off-pitch effects, but the truth is he was the only member of the cast who could really project over the orchestra (I would also add Irmgard Vilsmaier’s quasi-dramatic soprano, rather too loud for the role of the duenna). Martin Gantner was an efficient Faninal, but he missed too many theatrical points to be really convincing and, in spite of the anounced sickness, Stephen Rügamer seemed at ease in the difficult tessitura of the Italian Tenor’s aria.

Nicolas Brieger’s 14-years old staging takes so many unnecessary and pointless liberties with the libretto (Mohammed is here a dwarf, the three orphan girls are here boys, naked maids run through Faninal’s palace, the act III inn is depicted as an outdoor place with a bed hidden behind bushes) that in the end you just believe that nobody bothered to read the libretto. To make things worse, Joachim Herzog’s costumes are erratic, mixing styles from different centuries with no apparent purpose.  It is decidedly provincial and unworthy of Germany’s capital city.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Back to the Lindenoper’s recreation of the historic (and historical) Schinkel production, I can now report a little bit more enchantment because this time I had a parterre ticket. When you have a frontal view of the stage, the cardboard sets do work to the right effect and the fun is not spoilt by the view of poles, sticks and ropes behind the scene by those seated in upper levels or on the side. Still, the production is already old and desperately cries for a new process of stage rehearsals. Some scenes look messy, some change of sets verge on catastrophical. Worse: since gestures and movements were blocked looong time ago (with other singers), many scenes look either mechanical or, when they are not, it is because singers are indulging in a series of ad libs (that finally bring some freshness to the proceedings, it must be said).

The messy impression is not only a result of what one saw on stage, but also of what one heard from the pit. After an overture from hell, when everything was poorly synchronized, blurred and noisy, conductor Dan Ettinger tried during the whole evening to set pace, without really ever succeeding. Some serious mismatches in key moments abounded and attempts to generate some energy finally resulted in loud orchestra covering soloists. The side effect was some stretches of unsubtle singing by some members of the cast.

Adriane Queiroz was an unusually rich-toned Pamina whose approach has its heavy-footed moments, but who finally beguiled the audience with an expressive account of Ach, ich fühl’s in which she proved her ability to spin seamless legato. Her Pamina has also more attitude than we are used to see – and that worked to good effect in her “attempted suicide” scene. Sen Guo has no problem with high staccato and in alt notes, but she was ill at ease with everything else. Her first aria displayed rather arthritic coloratura and unfocused low register, problems less evident in Der Hölle Rache. She has clear German, but must work on her body expression, which is rather mute. I wonder if Martin Homrich should sing Mozart – one can see he knows what Mozartian singing should be, but it comes so unnaturally to him that his singing sounded constantly graceless, laborious and not truly on pitch. When it comes to Roman Trekel’s Papageno, it is true that his phrasing was almost unvariably rough, but the roughness was part of his overall concept of a boorish yet likeable Papageno. In the end, even if Mozartian grace should take some part in it, he was probably one of the less nonsensical Papagenos I have ever seen. I have saved the best for last – I have seen René Pape’s Sarastro in different occasions at the Metropolitan Opera House, but somehow found him too chic for the circumstances. Not this evening – he sang with such depth of expression, naturalness and intelligence that the role of Sarastro acquired a rarely seen three-dimensionality. His In diesen heil’gen Hallen was full of unforced emotion and one could have the sensation that time stood still while he sang it.

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