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Posts Tagged ‘Staatsoper unter den Linden’

In Oscar Wilde’s play, Salome comes to a terrace in Herod’s palace where she would eventually hear the voice of Iokanaan coming from a cistern. It must be terrible to be in so black a hole. It is like a tomb, she says. But in Harry Kupfer’s ooooold production for the Staatsoper unter den Linden, one may wonder if the cistern is worse than the prison-like setting where the Herod entertains his guests. I mean, it is not a prison-like setting – it is a prison in the 1970’s. Why women are allowed there at all, it is a question one might ask oneself. The page of Herodias, for instance, is here shown as a woman too – with a bizarre wig. Why is there a party in the facilities? And what these orthodox Jewish guys are doing there? These seem to be picky question in the context of these production, but once you are there in the theatre, you cannot help seeing the whole thing and making questions. In any case, it seems that a new head could not be produced to fit James Rutherford’s looks. The one Salome had did not look like him at all. By the way, probably because the head “belonged” to other Jochanaan, Salome could not do with it everything she said she would.

In any case, the Lindenoper is the right place to hear to this opera – the hall’s relatively small size gives the cast the opportunity to reserve their full-power singing to the key moments, what is essential in such a difficult score. In that department, maestro Pedro Halffter Caro deserves praises for finding the right volume of sound not to cover singers on stage and to uncover the complex writing for woodwind. However, the recessed string sound involved also a great loss of clarity.

Angela Denoke’s Straussian credentials are beyond suspicion – her sizeable creamy lyric soprano floats through Straussian lines to the manner born. It is also a voice that sounds lovely and young as Strauss would have wanted the role to sound. However, although this is a singer who has Sieglinde and Fidelio in her repertoire, Salome does require a very special kind of voice – those high-lying voices the glimmer of which pierce through an orchestra without much effort (such as Ljuba Welitsch’s or Hildegard Behrens’s). Denoke’s impressive technical control allowed her to prevent any loss of creaminess and roundness throughout, but that was achieved at the expense of carrying power in climactic high notes, in which wavering in pitch would also afflict her line. As a result, the closing scene would be her less successful moment and she seemed finally tired at the end of it. She is also a powerful stage actress, but her whole method is too intellectualized for a teenager. As a result, one would think rather of an experienced vamp trying her seductive powers on a new object. And that is not the story Oscar Wilde and Richard Strauss’s story. Also her dancer-like movements throughout the opera preempted the effect of her not-really-danced dance. I do not want to give the impression that Angela Denoke’s Salome is not worth while the visit to the theatre – one the contrary, this is a Salome with an exquisite voice, who can act and who can let the seventh veil drop without embarassing herself. But the sum of these exceptional parts do not add to a truly overwhelming performance.

James Rutherford’s Jochanaan similarly benefits from the hall’s small auditorium. It is not a huge voice, but forceful enough and he sings with commitment.  Although Reiner Goldberg’s approach is sometimes too over-the-top, his heldentenor is still impressive for a Charaktertenor role and he has the necessary charisma. Stephan Rügamer sang Narraboth with ardour and elegance, but the theatre should have announced Rosemarie Lang’s indisposition before letting her step on stage in such dire vocal condition. It is a small role, but the likes of Grace Hoffman, Agnes Baltsa and Leonie Rysanek have not refused the opportunity to sing it.

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What is wrong with Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail to inspire some of the worst operatic stagings in the history of opera? Michael Thalheimer’s new production for the Statsoper unter den Linden is one of the most pretentious pieces of stage direction ever shown to an audience. One might wonder why I am surprised considering the Lindenoper’s record with Regietheater. But make no mistake – Thalheimer’s Entführung is no Regietheater, it is rather a non-Regie. The whole plot is reduced to basically nothing. In most épatons-la-bourgeosie productions, an innocent bystander would believe he understood the plot, although what he understood has nothing to do with the actual story. For example, if someone who had never seen this most genial among Singspiele were invited to see Stefan Herheim’s production in Salzburg, he would later tell he saw something like the operatic adaptation of feature movie Beetlejuice. But if you took this same fellow to the Staatsoper this evening, he would ask you what the orchestra and the audience were doing in a preliminary rehearsal.

 To start with, the German taxpayer should claim Olaf Altmann’s fee back – he is billed as set designer, but all he did was to install a suspended cat downstage. And that’s it. Most singing and acting take place outside the stage or very near to the edge of it. As a result, the German taxpayer who could not afford a parterre ticket actually missed most of the show. Basically he paid twice for nothing. Katrin Lea Tag’s creative process as a costume designer seems to be: she took a flight to Tokyo, got to Shibuya Subway station and lured the six first people who appeared in front of her into selling her their clothes. I took a while to understand if Pedrillo was a boy or a girl. As for the choristers, she probably went to the Galeries Lafayette and said “give me some 80 black garments”. The guinea pig of our “Regie-experience” is asking himself to this moment why this minimalist fashion show had Turkish-flavoured music.

 If you bought the performance’s booklet, then you will understand that the director was really fascinated with the “language issue” – that there are Spanish characters dealing with Turkish characters while speaking and singing German. “Food for thought”, he might have thought. And this to this moment irrelevant aspect of the work took pride of place – so basically a) the plot; b) the sets; c) the costumes and d) common sense were replaced by dialogues spoken 75% in German and 5% in Italian (there is one Italian singer in the cast) and 20% in English. One may ask himself – considering that the plot is set in Turkey and that Berlin is one of the largest “Turkish” cities in the world – why nobody decided to add a bit of Turkish in this melting pot. I mean all this if you REALLY believe that there is a language issue in Die Entführung aus dem Serail. In New York, where all these languages are entirely foreign, the Metropolitan Opera House had all dialogues spoken in German.

 The nonsense-fest on stage did not affect the pit – Philippe Jordan offered a wide-eyed, alert reading of the score. His beat was flexibility itself and he always found the right balance between animation, lyricism, theatricality and elegance. The house orchestra responded accordingly, offering transparent sounds and clearly articulated phrasing. The edition here adopted opened the cuts in Martern aller Artern und Wenn der Freude. I wonder, however, how a serious conductor such as Jordan accepted the idea of interrupting Mozart’s arias in order to accommodate the director’s wishes. Mozart has not written such pauses and allowing them is insulting a genius to comply with the wishes of a nobody.

 William Christie’s recording (and Marc Minkowski’s video) show that Konstanze is a hard-day work for Christine Schäfer – and the passing of time does not made the task easier for her. I do not mean that the voice has suffered any decline. It has not – it still has a unique blending of luster, roundness and metal that makes it soft yet penetrating at the same time. However, the impossible filigree written by Mozart to Caterina Cavalieri is a continuous test to her abilities – many a coloratura passage is smudged, some long phrases are butchered for breath pauses and the lower end of the tessitura is often drowned in inaudibility. Because of that, Ach, ich liebte sounded frankly awkward, Traurigkeit a bit tentative and she seemed to connect only from Martern aller Arten on, rounded off rather from panache than from polish. Most disturbing was her unconvincing parlando and off-pitch effects. I know it has worked for her in contemporary repertoire – but really here it just sounds a trick to get away with difficult passages.

 Although Anna Prohaska sometimes underlines her phrasing too heavily, she has a contagious personality and often sings with instrumental accuracy. In this production, both Blondchen and Pedrillo are very, very gloomy, but she seems to have found a way to make it work for her. I cannot say the same of Florian Hoffmann. Without the animation, there is nothing left in Pedrillo and the heroic ascending phrases of Frisch zum Kampfe took him to his limits. Maurizio Muraro is my first Italian Osmin. Me may have a light accent, both in song and in dialogue and yet he produces flowing and meaningful German. As almost every Osmin, he does not really have the impossible low notes required by Mozart, but he has everything else. The voice is powerful, dark, firm and flexible and he sings stylishly. I save the best for last – Pavol Breslik is simply the best Mozart tenor of our days. I have found him more spontaneous in Italian, but still he is one of the best Belmontes I have seen both live or in recordings. Although he is a light lyric tenor, the sound is what the French call corsé – firm and incisive, yet ductile enough for mezza voce and flexible enough for breathtakingly accurate fioriture. When I mean breathtaking, I mean also that he has very long breath and produces some very fast and lengthy melisme a tempo without any hint of blurring. To make things better, the tone is extremely pleasant, something like a lighter Gösta Winbergh.

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Think of pale pink and blue, and bright red and silver and the 60’s and a grand hotel somewhere in Alabama and the State’s governor political campaign – and segregation, witchcraft and murder. No, it is not a movie with Jane Fonda and Paul Newman. It is the Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito’s 2008 production of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera for the Staatsoper unter den Linden. Although it takes a while to get used to the glitter, the idea is not bad per se. After all, when Verdi  had to adapt his plot because of censorship, he himself chose the United States as alternative set. I might be thrown stones at, but I have always found something Broadway-like in Un Ballo in Maschera – take David Parry’s recording in English, look for We can all go and see her together (i.e., Dunque signori aspettovi), close your eyes and tell me, if you can, that you do not feel at Broadway. In any case, although the concept has plenty to offer, it requires a far more complex production.

To start with, the pink ballroom simply does not work as an all-purpose set. Riccardo says that they have to go somewhere else to see Ulrica, but here they do not have to move to see her. Second, Ulrica tells Amelia she has to go to yet another place to find the herbs for the incantation she is looking for. Here, it is again the ballroom and having a bunch of ferns inside the columns sounds like a cheap solution. Third, Riccardo asks Renato to escort Amelia back to her place in town. Here, Amelia just needed to take the same corridor she had taken to get to her room in the same hotel. Finally, none of the main characters but Amelia uses a mask in the closing scene. They are actually seated side by side and unconvincingly seem not to realize each other’s presence. I mean, when you have to “accept” all that, it just looks like sloppy work. Couldn’t they stage the scene by the gallows in some sort of parking place? That would not be a set so difficult or expensive to build. Ulrica’s scene could take place in a storage room at the hotel – an even cheaper set. With some patience, that sort of thing could be done. At least, when some bad seats with limited views are sold for almost 50 euros, one could show a bit more consideration to the audience. Just having ideas is the easy part of the job – making them work is the hard part.

Conductor Philippe Jordan’s search of elegance and symphonic quality is always an advantage in Verdi. The love duet’s closing section, for example, may sound like band music when not properly handled, but animation can live with polish. Otherwise, uneventfulness may creep into the proceedings and finally turn the whole performance unmemorable.

Catherine Naglestad is no Verdian soprano – in a part often recorded by non-Verdian soprano such as Margaret Price or Josephine Barstow. Although her voice is not intrinsically exquisite, she sings with good taste and imagination and floats beautiful pianissimi. She is also a good actress, but her lower register not always works properly, she invariably blurs crotchets and the extreme top notes in act II eluded her entirely.

Un ballo in maschera is considered a tenor opera – and having the uprising Piotr Beczala as Riccardo places an immediate interest in the performance. There is no doubt about his beauty of tone, sense of style and animation – this is a voice always pleasant in the ears. He also know how to place a smile in his singing – and this is important for such a debonair character. The question is – should he really advance further in Verdian territory?  In a small opera house such as the Lindenoper, the role ultimately works well for him, but one can see that he has to brace himself for the heroic moments, especially in act II, when he was often overshadowed by the soprano – except at the duet’s last note, when both were covered by the orchestra.

Alfredo Daza has the measure of the role of Renato and he plunges in the part with body and soul. Sometimes the results are dramatically over the top and the curdled sound his baritone acquires above mezzo forte does not suggests much nobility to this non-villain character. Mariana Pentcheva knows how to play her voice’s unequal registers to the right effect for Ulrica – and she has the necessary charisma for the role. Announced indisposed, Sylvia Schwartz only sang the first verse of her two arias. Nonetheless, this was the best performance I have seen with this singer – her absolutely free top register floats beautifully in this higher-lying roles. Maybe she should explore this repertoire more often than the purely lyric roles I have often seen her sing. As a curiosity, Oscar here is a girl – her act I costumes are a bit at odds with the surroundings. She looks like a dominatrix, but she is only Riccardo’s secretary – but I wonder if a woman in that position in the 60’s would dress like that.

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If one had to create a production of Richard Strauss’s Elektra in 15 minutes, it would probably look like  Dieter Dorn’s 1994 production for the Staatsoper unter den Linden. Grey geometrical walls – check, sacrificial instruments – check, robes and veils – check. One could miss a damaged statue of Agamemnon, but it seems the budget was not rich enough for that.  After all these years, it is difficult to say anything about stage direction. It is clear that production veteran Deborah Polaski – and, to some extent, Jane Henschel – shows a certain  unity in her gestures. The others seem quite lost. I also know that the title role is really long and is permanently on stage and that a singer should feel thirsty at some point, but I am not entirely convinced that having a bucket of water and a cup as a stage prop is the good idea – no-one in the audience felt that this was connected to the action in any way, but rather a mere necessity one should bear with. Considering the work has completed one hundred years since its creation in Dresden (and its first performance in Berlin roughtly one month later), maybe a newstaging could have been produced.

In what regards horizontal clarity, Michael Boder offered an exemplary performance: complex harmonies were as easily perceived as if you had the score in front of you. However, no pun intended, the proceedings were rarely electrifying, although the orchestra was very responsive to Strauss’s descriptive effects. Sometimes, I had the impression that clarity was achieved at the expense of forward movement, as in Klytämnestra’s nightmare. Also, it is a pity that the brass section lacked finish in a general way.

It is something of a feat that Deborah Polaski is still regularly singing the role of Elektra at 60 (this performance was actually her birthday celebration). Provided you can put up with approximative pitch on exposed high notes, one could say it is still a most effective performance of this most difficult role. Hers is one of the less microphone-friendly voice I have ever heard – on recordings, it almost invariably sounds colourless, while live it is a voluminous stream of warm, rich sound. Above the stave, legato tends to disappear and the tone can become constricted. The extreme top notes were a matter of hit-or-miss, but her relative ease to float mezza voce rescues her from many a difficult passage. Unfortunately, the Recognition Scene, which should be her best moment, caught her bit out of steam.  What is beyond doubt is her intelligence, aided by very clear diction, and dramatic commitment. Although some might find the flaws difficult to overcome, there is one undeniable asset – this is a dramatic soprano with feeling for Straussian style who often beguiles the listener with creamy stretches of expressive singing. Of how many Elektras one could say something like that? But don’t check your recordings to prove me wrong – this time you’ll really have to listen to her yourself at the theatre.

Although Anne Schwanewilms is very popular here in Germany, I believe that Chrysothemis is a no-go for her. Her voice is light for the heavy orchestration, she has problems to pierce into the auditorium in her higher register, often pecks at notes when the score requires flowing legato and, when there is no fallback position and she really has to produce some acuti, the sound is often strained. Not to mention that the buzzing sound over her voice does not help her either.

Jane Henschel’s clear yet forceful mezzo soprano counted with a neverending range of tonal colouring and her clear intervals are a strong asset for the harmonic challenging passages. Although she has clear diction, she still has to work on her American “r”. Hanno Müller-Brachmann offered focused firm tone. I do not know for how long he has been singing the role – he did not seem in his element in terms of interpretation. Reiner Goldberg’s Heldentenor is still very healthy and he never cheated with Ägysth’s angular writing. I have to say something about Monika Riedler’s Aufseherin – she offered one of the most accurate performances of this tiny but critical role that I have ever heard, live or in recordings.

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Orlando Paladino is one of the operas Haydn wrote for the small opera house at the Esterháza Palace. It has been rarely performed and some might remember it as one of Elly Ameling’s rare operatic recording, conducted by Antal Dorati in his all-stars series for Phillips. It has also recently caught the attention of Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who released a recording made live in Graz with some favourite singers in European stages: Patricia Petibon, Malin Hartelius, Werner Güra, Michael Schade and Christian Gerhaher.

As much as Harnoncourt, conductor René Jacobs made his own edition for his performances at the Staatsoper unter den Linden, involving basically the trimming of recitatives and the inclusion of one showpiece aria from Haydn’s Il mondo della Luna for the role of Alcina. As usual, Jacobs has a fancy for the decoration of repeats, what is less bothersome in an unfamiliar opera, for very active continuo (here beside a fortepiano, an alternating harpsichord plus a lute) and for writing over the composer’s work (the inclusion of loud percussion in the Eurilla/Pasquale duet Quel tuo visetto amabile and the inclusion of a part for Eurilla in Pasquale’s “catalogue” aria). But one would forgive Jacobs anything – his conducting was at one vital and spontaneous. Those used to Harnoncourt’s recording were certainly surprised by the flowing yet clear and forward-moving approach. With the help of the polished and animated playing from the Freiburger Barockorchester, ensembles were always transparent and the lyric moments, given all the time they needed, were particularly touching.

Even in such an excellent cast, one would have no doubt that Marlis Petersen’s is the prima donna role. Her golden-toned lyric soprano is extremely ductile and flexible  – the purity of line, accurate divisions, floating pianissimi and dramatic imagination are admirable – and, considering the light vocal quality, particularly penetrating. Also properly cast in the soubrette role, Sunhae Im not only sung with charm and instrumental poise, but also showed real talent for comedy. It is a voice that blossoms a bit high in the soprano range, though, and sometimes she disappears in her first octave. Although Haydn could not have said that Alcina is a mezzo soprano role, the notes speak for themselves. It is extremely gracious of Alexandrina Pendatchanska to take such a secondary role, but once again her wide spectrum of abilities did not build into a coherent performance. The role sits uncomfortably in her soprano – the lower end was dealt with with a somewhat overblown chest voice that did not seamlessly connect  to a recessed middle register and there was little opportunity for her forceful high register. She furiously decorated her part and I cannot see any other reason for her florid insertion aria in the somewhat pointless act III than Jacobs’s friendship with her. In any case, she seized the opportunity to offer a dazzling coloratura display.

 Magnus Staveland’s tenor lacks projection above the passaggio, but it is an extremely pleasant voice, rich-toned and flexible, what is essential for the role of the handsome Medoro (as clearly shown in the libretto, there is not really much beyond looks in Medoro). Tom Randle performs the “furious” aspects of Orlando to perfection, especially in a production that requires from him destroying sets with an axe à la Jack Nicholson in The Shining. His tenor has a darker and more heroic colour than, for example, Michael Schade’s in Harnoncourt’s recording, but he lacks Schade’s floating mezza voce for the most meditative moments. Another favorable comparison with Harnoncourt’s recording is Pietro Spagnoli as Rodomonte, far more spontaneous both vocally and interpretatively (Italian is his native language, one must remember) than Gerhaher. The audience’s favorite, beyond any doubt, was Argentine baritone Victor Torres, who offered an all-round satisfying performance – velvety tonal quality, stylishness, solid technique, theatrical verve and, most of all, he is really funny.

The performance booklet makes a strong point for the Orlando Paladino’s semiserio style with many references to Mozart’s Don Giovanni. I would rather point to Così fan tutte – and I tend to believe that directors Nigel Lowery and Amir Hoisseinpour would agree with me. In Don Giovanni, Donna Anna, Don Ottavio and the Commendatore’s predicament are serious business and Mozart has a sympathetic eye for them, while Fiordiligi, Dorabella and Ferrando’s petty ordeals are made fun of and we only relate to them and finally care about them and suffer for them because we have first laughed at them. In Orlando Paladino, the serio roles, Angelica and Medoro, are so aloof that Haydn makes a series of musical jokes by abruptly changing the affetto for their neverending lamenting. Their arias are almost a parody of opera seria with their overwrought strette. Accordingly, Angelica is shown in this production as the demanding and needy beauty queen who is always upset by the less-than-glamorous circumstances – basically the passive-aggressive dyed-blond bitch who sings coloratura at every opportunity. In his text on the booklet, Jacobs also defends the idea that Alcina is a serious role, but I guess that again the directors agree with me that she would be mezzo carattere – here shown as a drunk hostess who never knows exactly when she should display her superpowers.

Normally, I would resent the excess of slapstick comedy, but one must acknowledge that the libretto demands so – and the cast is extremely comfortable with that. I am not sure about the bearded fairies performing distracting (but funny) subplots in the background amd definitely dislike the silly coreographies – but there are so many ingenious touches that one cannot help but having a great time.

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I have to confess I was eager to see August Everding’s 15-year old production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte for the Staatsoper unter den Linden because of the attempt to reproduce sets and costumes from the famous 1816 Karl Friedrich Schnikel production for the Königlichen Schauspiele, as seen below.

In the booklet, Everding and his creative team explain what sort of adaptations had to be made to transform these set designs into three-dimension sceneries, but the truth is, unless you have an orchestral seat right in the middle of the auditorium, the experience is seriously impaired by the fact that the production seems depressingly two-dimensional: you can always see the end of backdrops and the wood-structures that keep everything in place, not to mention that nothing seems really symmetric. I have a serious problem with directors who disregard that opera houses have seats on the right and left sides and also on the other levels. We all know that XIXth century-sceneries tended to be flat, but once you’re adapting, this problem could have been seen to. I also dislike the shining black surface added to the stage floor – the sets do not seem to take advantage of the reflex and, otherwise, its modernity does not go with the cardboard scenic elements and painted backdrops. It might be only a detail, but it makes the whole thing look like the Epcot-center version of the Magic Flute. 

To make things even less atmospheric, conductor Julien Salemkour seemed to be really concerned about not being late for dinner. He tried to make things fast, but without any hint of animation or the energetic accents that would make phrases actually alive. To say the truth, the performance seemed underrehearsed – there was very little clarity in the orchestral playing, mismatches with soloists abounded and, at some moments, there seemed to be a struggle between singers and the conductor to set the pace, as in Bei Männer or, more seriously in Seid uns zum zweiten Mal willkommen.

In the cast, the low voices stand out – Christof Fischesser has a natural and spacious low register and, although his voice could be a bit nobler, he compensated that by  sober, elegant phrasing. On the other hand, Hanno Müller-Brachmann’s dark-toned Papageno was always vivacious and keenly sung. Stephan Rügamer’s Mozartian singing still needs some work. The basic tonal quality is extremely pleasant, he is musicianly and stylish, but whenever he has to ascend through the passaggio in full voice, the tone acquires an intense nasality that robs his tenor of all pleasantness. As for Sylvia Schwartz, this is a technically accomplished singer with no hint of effort or discomfort, but the voice has a grainy quality that prevents it from sounding really lovely, young-sounding and ultimately seductive as a singer in her Fach should. If you can go beyond this minor drawback, hers was an exemplary account of the part of Pamina. Ana Durlovski has a strange voice for the Queen of the Night – the sound has the right impact… in the lower reaches. Her high register lacks cutting edge and she slides a bit in order to keep in tempo with her fioriture, but her high staccato notes are truly accurate.

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Peter Mussbach’s production of Verdi’s Macbeth for the Staatsoper unter den Linden is almost 10 years old – and one can see that. It looks decidedly worn out, frumpy and quite depressing today. I wonder if it had looked really well in the past. It is a very geometrical/basic-colours production with a (very distant) flavour of Japanese theatre and a (self-defeating) touch of Wieland Wagner (I mean self-defeating, because W.W’s productions had no unnecessary gestures and features, as this one has in plenty).  More frustratingly, some attempts of creating an eerie atmosphere look just childishly funny.  Is it time for a new production?

In any case, the shortcomings of the theatrical aspects of this staging are more than compensated by the superb playing of the Staatskapelle Berlin, which offered absolute clarity, accuracy and richness of sound.  Conductor Julien Salemkour’s approach was a bit kapellmeisterlich and you felt that tempi sagged a bit, but the beauty of the orchestral sound did not make you impatient about the conductor’s lazy pace. By its final contribution, the Staatsoper’s chorus offered a solid performance, but – as often – the witches’ choirs seemed well-behaved and unidiomatic*.

The famous Verdian quote about Lady Macbeth needing a rasp, dark voice has been used as excuse for many inadequate performance. It is obvious that a pretty voice does not work for this role, but an ugly voice is no excuse for poor technique. Sylvie Valayre is all-right an intelligent singer, but her manipulations to produce a “dramatic” voice robs her phrasing of all spontaneity: her diction is very unclear, her gear changes are quite clumsy, her sense of pitch is not always reliable (although she generally hits her high notes correctly)… I was going to say that the sound is the opposite of pretty, but that could be intentional. She cunningly lightened her tone for the brindisi and, for the first time, her coloratura was more or less a tempo. What is beyond doubt is that she is a good actress. It is a pity that her long experience with the production had a perverse effect – the spirit behind the flash is gone and a great deal of the gestures blocked in rehearsals held loooong time ago seem pointless, especially in her opening aria. On the other hand, Vladimir Stoyanov has a truly full-toned Verdian baritone. Although the higher end of his range is not as forceful as the rest of his voice, his phrasing is so musicianly, spontaneous and pleasant that he cannot help sounding  convincing in this repertoire. Christof Fischesser’s rich and dark bass is tailor-made for the role of Banquo – I hope to hear him again in the future. Stephan Rügamer’s tenor, unfortunately, is not Italianate or flowing enough for La paterna mano – it was a reliable if not ingratiating performance nonetheless.

* I’ll be writing soon about the witches’ chorus in Macbeth.

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Stefan Herheim must be the most irritating among living stage directors working for an opera house in the whole world. His production of Wagner’s Lohengrin for the Staatsoper unter den Linden has an ambitious agenda – to discuss the relationship between religion, myth and politics through the idea of Lohengrin as a messianic leader who would restore purity inside everyone of us before we are confronted with the fact that an imperfect world cannot be redeemed by perfect solutions. Here Lohengrin does not bring back the Duke of Brabant before he flies away in his giant white feather (apparently, the swann itself does not stop at Bebelplatz): he actually collapses on the ground a few moments later – he was nothing but a fantasy, a human-sized marionette. Accordingly, the “creator” itself,  Richard Wagner is shown as a bouncing marionette during the overture.

Although there is plenty of intelligent ideas going on here (I do not know if I could say the same of Herheim’s Entführung aus dem Serail for the Salzburg Festival), there are way too many of them to start with. Herheim’s staging begins as the cheapest example of Regietheater with soloists and chorus members in casual clothes, carrying string puppets and posters with the words “State”, “Comic”, “German”, “Opera” etc, then develops to something like a mix of Broadway shows Hair and Spamalot until it finally takes off on Act III in a sensitively staged bridal chamber scene, with fine acting from the cast’s Lohengrin and Elsa. I was determined to close my eyes and let myself enjoy the music, but the truth is that – in spite of the high levels of sheer silliness – it does set one’s mind going once you start to consider the many perceptive points about the interrelation of private and public affairs in the libretto. But that’s a virtue of such an acknowledgedly masterly libretto, which not deserves to be made fun of.

If I really had decided to close my eyes and enjoy the music, the balance would definitely be positive. The first chords in the overture revealed such crystalline pianissimo string playing that one could legitimately felt transported to paradise. However, while Daniel Barenboim could extract the last ounce of beauty in lyric passages in grand yet clear orchestra sounds with an expert’s ear for tempi that let musical effects work in the right way, more complex scenes brought about an unsubtle brassy orchestral sound, as in the introduction to act III, for example.While the chorus was unusually accurate in Lohengrin’s arrival and particularly smooth-toned in Gesegnet soll sie schreiten, the orchestra failed to produce either the kaleidoscopic impression in the former or the increasing tension in the later. My memory may betray me, but I have the impression that Barenboim was more substantial and less bombastic when I saw him conduct  this work in the Lindenoper back in 1999.

In what I believe to be her debut in the role of Elsa von Brabant, Dorothea Röschmann not only dispelled my doubts about her venture in jugendlich dramatisch repertoire, but indeed impressed me with her continuous flow of creamy, rich tone and her intelligent and emotional interpretation. Although the voice is still light for the role, her technical control steered her through the perilous exposed moments in ensembles and especialy in the act III duet with Lohengrin. She has mastered the art of projecting Spitzentöne in the hall without forcing her lyric voice, and her ability to produce strong chest notes is of great help in declamatory passages. All I can say is that, although I have immensely enjoyed her Mozart performances, this is the definitely the best I have seen from this very special singer.

Michaela Schuster fulfils the basic vocal requirement for Ortrud, but small miscalculations around the passaggio spoiled some key moments. She relishes the Cruella DeVille approach and handles the text in an unusual yet refreshing sort of evil-and-loving-it manner. Gerd Grochowski’s light but forceful bass-baritone is often drowned by the orchestra, and his very clear articulation of the text helped he out in the last minute. I guess no-one really missed René Pape, who was unable to sing the role of King Henry, since Kwangchul Youn, his replacement, offered an exemplary performance. He was at his most Karl Ridderbusch-ish while offering his own kind of sensitive verbal nuance.

I leave Klaus Florian Vogt’s Lohengrin for last. It is difficult to descibe such an extraordinary voice. His high-placed, straight-toned voice is so devoid of the corsé quality which is the hallmark of a tenor that it almost has an almost infantile colour. His ability to produce effortless floating mezza voce is impressive and, at the same time, he can pierce through dense orchestration with very little strain. I could not help thinking that it almost resembled a pop singing style. I say “almost” because a) he did not need a microphone to achieve that and b)  sometimes his phrasing could be more flowing and have less of that sensation of one-note-after-the-other, especially when he had to plunge to the lower end of his range. In any case, if Lohengrin should have an unearthy, angelic feeling about him,  Klaus Florian Vogt is hors concours. He is almost like the tenor answer to Gundula Janowitz’s Elsa – the sound of his voice says everything you need to know about the role and you tend to part with the demand for a collection of interpretative gestures that would only imitate what nature itself has somehow produced.

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