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Posts Tagged ‘Stephen Gould’

The Semperoper’s new staging of R. Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos is not limited to what happens on stage. On arriving at the theatre’s foyer, one could see a group of people in tuxedos and long dresses having dinner to the sound of live chamber music. One would discover later that these are the guests to the dinner party in the house of Vienna’s richest man in Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s libretto. As the butler insists to say, the main event in this soirée is going to be the fireworks. As we left the theatre, the usher did not fail to hand out sparklers to all members in the audience. Does that mean that director David Hermann faithfully followed every word written by Hofmannsthal? Even if the action is updated to our days, Mr. Hermann showed unusual care to the libretto. For instance, according to the text, the lord of the house gave clear instructions that the actors in the vaudeville were supposed to “decorate” the depressing sets of the opera, but what one usually sees is Zerbinetta and her troupe appearing on stage only when they have to sing. Not here. As asked by their patron, the comedians are practically continuously on stage – and Mr. Hermann really had to use his imagination to make that work. And, well, it did work. The clash of neoclassical and rococo aesthetics as represented by commedia dell’arte and opera seria are in the core of this mise-en-scène’s concept. The problem of a production so observant of the author’s original ideas is that the eventual liberty taken by the director cannot help being at-your-face conspicuous. For instance, the gender-ambiguous Composer or the Bacchus in his ordinary clothes who seems to have transcended the limits of role-playing and acquired some sort of hyperconsciousness that allows him to “operate” the stage à la “Matrix”. It seems that the director at some point decided that he should add some sort of insight to the proceedings, but it did feel rather “added upon” than “built from within”. In any case, this is a beautiful staging with plenty of clever scenic solutions and careful Personenregie – and it could have perfectly done without the “interpretative touch of genius”.

If there is a repertoire in which Christian Thielemann can do no wrong this is Richard Strauss. The kind of orchestral sound this music requires is something that he is naturally able to obtain from an orchestra, especially the one Strauss himself called the Wunderharfe. Tonight, the audience was treated the most exquisite orchestral playing in the market. Mr. Thielemann’s main purpose this evening seemed to be absolute clarity, but not in the sense of “making everything hearable” , but rather in that of revealing the meaning behind every phrase in this score. A deaf person would have left the auditorium knowing the complete structure of thematic relations devised by the Bavarian composer. During the prologue, I could not help thinking this was the Straussian performance of a lifetime, but the opera itself – good as it was – did not reach the same paramount level. Although Mr. Thielemann is one of the most solid conductors of our days, there is something pretty much beyond his reach, and this is “relaxing”. Ariadne auf Naxos will always be a tough cookie, for reconciling the burlesque and the grandiose in the opera will always be a challenge, especially for typically Wagnerian conductors. Although I fully endorse Mr. Thielemann’s idea of making the comedy episode more serious by keeping a more regular beat and a considerate tempo (and a certain fullness of sound), when Ariadne and Bacchus are alone at last, instead of regaining the flexibility shown in the prologue and the even at the first part of the opera, the tendency to make things more serious had already gained too much momentum to be contained. By the end, the impression was rather of ponderousness. Had he been able to boost the volume of his orchestra, this could have somehow worked in a very Siegfried-ian way, but his cast was hanging fire by then and there was no other option but to rein in.

I have always believed that there is some sort of curse involved the title role in this opera. It is almost never marvelously sung, even when a great soprano is indeed cast. For instance, Krassimira Stoyanova was a very good Marschallin in Salzburg, and the idea of g her as Ariadne seemed natural. On paper, her voice is perfect for the role. At first, it was all there: the creamy tone, the floated mezza voce, the low notes, the noble phrasing and even a special attention to the text. But the climax of Es gibt ein Rich already showed an opaque quality to her high notes whenever she sings above mezzo forte. In order to be heard in those moments, she had to employ a great deal of energy, with variable results. The sound has very little squillo these days and her only tool to ride the orchestra was really going full powers. In the difficult final scene, she was just too tired, the tone was gray and she had to adapt what R. Strauss wrote to reach the end of some phrases. That is indeed a pity, for, maybe in a better day, she could be a plausible exponent of this role. Her liability here was made more evident by the vocal opulence of her Bacchus, Stephen Gould at his most powerful and richest toned. This part is on the high side for his voice and I was worried by what he would make of it. He scored many points by producing perfect mezza voce in the high a in Weh, bist du auch solche eine Zauberin?, but started to get pinched until he finally omitted the high b flat* in his final phrase. In spite of that, Mr. Gould sang beautifully and I was glad I could hear him in this role.

Daniela Fally is an extremely light-toned Zerbinetta, rather on the soubrettish side of the soprano spectrum. She is a musicianly and intelligent singer, whose vivid handling of the text in her native language is highlighted by very clear diction, even when things get really high. Her coloratura is clear and her trills are acceptable. As many superlight Zerbinettas, she gets nervous when Strauss takes her above the high c. In this moments, the tone becomes glassy and her breath shorter. Other than this, she offered a charming and spirited performance. She was very well partnered by Rafael Fingerlos’s Harlekin, with more than a splash of Olaf Bär in his light, dulcet baritone. Although Albert Dohmen’s vowels are a bit overdark, he was in very good voice and sang forcefully as the Music Master. There was also a truly euphonious trio of nymphs in Tuuli Takala, Evelin Novak and Simone Schröder. Joseph Dennis and Carlos Osuna were probably the richest-toned pair of tenors ever to appear in Zerbinetta’s troupe – and Alexander Pereira (yes, the Alexander Pereira) was a funny Haushofmeister.

I leave the best for last. As she was in Berlin, Daniela Sindram is a superlative, out-of-this-world Komponist. Her singing of this role is of golden age quality. As she is less famous than she deserved to be, I make a point of making it clear how much I appreciate her singing both here and in Der Rosenkavalier.

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The second item in the RSB’s Strauss opera program this week, a concert performance of Elektra, showed Marek Janowski in his element: absolute structural clarity, understanding of the score’s graphic orchestral effects, a forward-moving approach to tempo that avoided unnecessary ponderousness and the right decision making in what regarded balance between singers and orchestra. This could only work because of the RBS’s extreme affinity with this piece: all musicians were fully integrated in the dramatic action and were ready to try different sounds, not to mention that the harsh and aggressive sound picture of Elektra comes more readily to this orchestra than the crystalline kaleidoscope in Daphne.

Casting too proved to be very effective, even when it was not ideal. Catherine Foster’s performance in the title role has to be considered with the fact that she has agreed to sing her part having an orchestra on stage and without cuts usually adopted to help singers in the most demanding passages. There has only been one perfect Elektra – and that was Birgit Nilsson – all the other singers fall in two groups: those who manage to get to the end of the opera singing something similar to what Strauss wrote and those who don’t. Ms. Foster fits in the first group. She has clear advantages: her basic tone is clear, youthful and spontaneous, she can lighten her voice for curvier phrases and to float mezza voce now and then and she proved capable of producing some very loud acuti in climactic passages. Although she manages her resources relatively well, there are moments when she is understandably tired, most notably in the final scene. Then she can sound fluttery, strained and brittle. But there is never the feeling that she “is not going to make it”. Her performance has strong irony, intelligence, vulnerability and a certain provocativeness. When this Elektra shows her soft side (as in the Recognition Scene), this sounds like a natural consequence. The problem remains that Hofmannsthal’s Elektra is doomed from the start – there cannot be a sense that she is going to survive this. And Catherine Foster is somehow too self-possessed and too ready to soften to ultimately deal with the escalating paroxysms leading to the final exhaustion in the end of the opera. If I had to point out a drawback in this performance, however, this would be less than crispy declamation, making some of Elektra’s vituperation generalized and unvaried.

Camilla Nylund’s velvety soprano offered a nice contrast for Chrysothemis. She dealt with the testingly high tessitura without saturating the picture with strident high notes and blended well with her Elektra towards the end of the opera. A beautiful performance. I have never warmed to Waltraud Meier’s Klytämnestra and hearing her live only confirmed my impression that she lacks resonance in this lower role, often resorts to speaking voice and is sometimes inaudible. Her understanding of the psychology of this role is very keen and more believable than the caricature put on by some exponents of this part. Günther Groissöck was a dark-toned, resonant Orest, and the role of Ägysth was glamorously cast with Stephen Gould, who could sing all his notes over a loud orchestra. Small roles were all of them well taken, but Gala El Hadidi (Second Maid) and Eve-Maud Hubeaux (Third Maid) deserve special mention.

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Marek Janowski’s Wagner series with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin is connected to recordings to be released by the label PentaTone, but the truth is that, until this evening, good as every performance has been, none of them has resulted a CD that has taken the discography by storm. Although it is impossible to predict how the recording made this evening is going to be, I cannot wait to buy it, for it is a Tristan und Isolde that I have always wanted to hear.

The very nature of Wagner’s most famous work calls for ponderousness, for an intensity cooked at low fire, for an approach to unending melody that almost invariably involves a very special tempo in which time seems to stand still. But the work is about passion – even at its most metaphysical – and passion is still the keynote here. And I like the way Maestro Janowski takes it at face value – I was tempted to write “in almost Verdian agitation”, but I have the impression that most Wagnerians would frown at it.  The feverish pulse, clearly articulated accompanying figures, the impacting accents, the brisk pace, the almost relentless forward movement – one would never mistake it for La Forza del Destino, but one could think of it at times. The first act benefited particularly from this concept – the drama developed without repose, as a single theatrical gesture wrapped in brilliant, angular, aptly raw orchestral playing. In act II, the conductor softened his orchestra for a more intimate perspective and one missed now and then the tonal focus in lower dynamics that only the top orchestras of the world have. It goes without saying that the level of clarity was short of sensational – I have discovered many novelties in this score (that I have last heard live only Saturday). Act III seemed entirely original to my ears – Tristan’s physical languor took second place to his spiritual turbulence and Janowski grew from intensity to downright frenzy in vortices of string playing that would have made it impossible for almost any tenor to survive the experience.

If Janowski’s vibrant conducting were not reason enough to single this performance out, Stephen Gould would alone be worth the detour. It is not difficult to say that he has no rivals in this role these days, but I also tend to think that he stands comparison with the best Tristans in recordings too. His voice is naturally powerful, firm and unproblematic – and Janowski did not spare him even in his most difficult monologues, in which he had to provide very fast declamation over the passaggio with a really loud orchestra on stage. It is doubly amazing that he was able to do this almost entirely within the rules of cantabile: Gould phrased with unusual elegance, sang long phrases on the breath, interpreted with imagination and tonal variety, shifted to softer dynamics more often than most. I have to confess that I have barely recognized some passages, so cleanly and musicianly as they sounded. Naturally, the task is inhuman and there were (rare) moments of tension and tightness – I can only wonder that, in the studio, he would be, well, unrealistically perfect. Bravissimo.

I took almost the whole first act to get used to Nina Stemme’s Isolde. It is a voluminous, weighty voice but very short on cutting edge. If her smoky, velvety tonal quality makes her immediately unique among dramatic sopranos, it is also true that she is often overshadowed by the orchestra, except above a high g, when she produces a truly exciting sound, even more so for its roundness and firmness (the high c’s were truly amazing). It is only when you get to the second act that you understand why Stemme’s Isolde is so highly appreciated – her warm tonal quality, her floating mezza voce, her generous flow of velvety tone makes her an outstandingly sensuous Isolde. And her Liebestod is certified top-quality too. It is curious that she seemed somewhat nervous this evening, especially in the first act, when she made some false entries and other minor blunders.

Michelle Breedt was an interesting choice for Brangäne – her forceful, finely focused mezzo sounded lighter and more penetrating than her Isolde’s voice. She seemed to miss stage action and tried to infuse meaning in every little syllable. Sometimes the result could seem a bit fussy, but her intent was always clear and aptly conveyed. The gigantic orchestral proved to be challenging to Johan Reuter (Kurwenal), who had to work hard to be heard and often without success. As King Marke, Kwangchul Youn did not have to struggle – he sang generously and sensitively, but his bass was unfortunately not at its firmest this evening.

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It seems that fortunes favors the bold. Although the weather was far from good, I had decided not to see today’s Götterdämmerung and only changed my mind in the last minute. I am glad I did change my mind, for not only was it the best performance by far in this cycle, but also a good performance for any standard. First of all, the orchestra seemed to find its lost affection for Wagner’s music and played with full commitment – and Donald Runnicles did not miss the opportunity to offer an alert and dramatic account of the score. This evening – as it should – the orchestra was very much in the center of the events, eagerly commenting the recapitulation of Leitmotive in the Prologue, heightening the atmosphere in Brünnhilde and Siegfried’s duet, relishing the effects in Siegfried’s journey through the Rhine and so on. It is curious that, last year, the Gibichungenhalle scene didn’t seem to start off, while this evening it was particularly effective in its supple organicity. Although the Waltraute scene did not keep up with the overall animation and the ensuing scene with Brünnhilde and Siegfried could be a little bit more intense, act II regained some of the excitement in spite of some mismatches between chorus and orchestra. The conductor deserves credit for his ability to balance singers’ needs and the intent to maintain a large orchestral sound, especially in the Immolation Scene, soon after an impacting Trauermarsch the climax of which was very coherently built. In a nutshell, this was not the last word in Götterdämmerung, but it was nonetheless a very competently done performance with one or two truly interesting scenes. It is only a pity that the remaining operas in the tetralogy did not show the same level of care and involvement.

After getting off on the wrong foot in Siegfried, Janice Baird seemed ready to clean her records this evening. Although her middle and especially her low registers lack volume, she was well in command of her high notes and produced required dramatic acuti whenever this was necessary. More than this, her phrasing was often clean and consequent (provided there were no low notes on the way). Even if she is not a very specific interpreter, she was not sleepwalking either. A very decent job, considering what one hears around. With her focused, pleasant-toned soprano, Heidi Melton is almost luxurious casting as Gutrune. I couldn’t help noticing she has lost some weight too, the right decision in order to build a career as important as she deserves. Replacing Karen Cargill, Christa Mayer offered a very subtle and expressive if a bit underpowered Waltraute. The Norns (especially Liane Keegan) and the Rhinemaids (I feel badly for singling Clémentine Margaine out, since the three of them were excellent, but a contralto dark-toned and focused as hers calls attention) were all cast from strength from the ensemble.

Siegfried is a role a little bit on the high side for Stephen Gould and yet he can pull it off almost without accidents. Although his tone becomes taut when things get high and fast, he managed his resources expertly reaching his last scene in better shape than most. His voice is refreshingly big and firm, his diction is very clean and, considering the baritonal sound of his voice and his physical frame, he was able to suggest boyishness without looking silly. It was very rewarding to realize how Markus Brück’s Gunther improved since last year – his performance is free now free from the blustering and hamming that disfigured it last time and one could sample the richness and forcefulness of his singing the way it should be. I was also surprised to notice that Matti Salminen, at 66, can still be an effective Hagen, actually really better than he was last year. Only those who knew his younger self could notice the effects of time in a voice still powerful, firm and incisive enough for this key role. Actually, his scene with Alberich had the effect of exposing Gordon Hawkins’s lack of charisma in the role of Alberich.

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R. Strauss’s Frau ohne Schatten’s first studio recording has a legendary status – Karl Böhm tried to convince Decca’s Moritz Rosengarten to take profit of his excellent Vienna State Opera cast and record the opera for the first time. Rosengarten agreed to the proposal but offered him such a limited budget that the cast was obliged to sing for free in an unheated studio. The result, in experimental stereo sound, is the performance by which every other is judged. Including the one presented by the Salzburg Festival this evening. Why am I telling all this? Well, because director Christof Loy supposes that everyone in the audience knows that, even if it actually has intrinsically  nothing to do with the opera composed by Richard Strauss and written by Hugo von Hofmannsthal.

The plot of Frau ohne Schatten is one of the most complex in the whole repertoire, based on a wide-ranging and hermetic symbolism that addressed nonetheless some of the most important issues both in psychological and sociological levels at the time of its creation. If there is an opera that still needs a director to guide the audience through it, this is Frau ohne Schatten. It is a formidable task – those who are brave enough, such as David Pountney, have made a stab at it, most hide behind vague stylization, but Loy is the first director I have heard of who has given up before he tried. When Mary Zimmerman staged Bellini’s La Sonnambula as a rehearsal and portrayed all characters as singers et al, she met with harsh criticism, but I have to say that a) although Zimmerman did not really get the plot of La Sonnambula, it is a story a five-year-old kid would understand; and b) although Zimmerman’s concept was poorly developed, her stage direction itself was quite efficiently done, in the sense that there were well-defined characters, an imaginative use of the scenic space and actors acted well. I cannot say the same of this evening’s performance – the beautifully built scenery shows the Sofiensaal (where Solti’s Ring and not Böhm’s Frau ohne Schatten was recorded) prepared for recording sessions. Even if Loy explains very clearly his concept in the booklet – the Empress is a young singer who has to deal with her inner conflicts and mature as an artist through the experience of seeing a bitter aging diva (the Amme) trying to ruin the marriage of a younger colleague (Barak’s Wife) with prospects of success – what one basically sees is: singers with a score on a music stand while an engineer records it. The funny thing is that it is far less interesting than The Golden Ring documentary, where Birgit Nilsson, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Georg Solti are far more fascinating characters under God’s direction. Unlike some other members of the audience, I did not feel that I had to close my eyes to concentrate on the music, but – considering that the future of the euro is a bit uncertain right now – I feel sorry that so much money has been spent for exchange of insights below soap-opera level.

Under these circumstances, the audience certainly turned its attention to the musical side of the performance, and Christian Thielemann more than met the challenge. His performances of FroSch in the Deutsche Oper have left a very positive memory in Berlin and, if there is a composer in whose work the German conductor’s skills are not doubted, this is Richard Strauss. And this opera’s original orchestra is the Vienna State Opera Orchestra (both in the first performance and in the Böhm recording*). Therefore, hearing him conduct it with the Vienna Philharmonic has a special meaning. As he explained in the booklet, Richard Strauss’s music is so multilayered and dramatic that it requires from conductors the discipline to restrain themselves and let the music speak by itself. On listening to this evening’s performance, one could see that Thielemann really meant it. His approach is extremely respectful to the score, performed without cuts. It is at once full-toned (without being simply loud) and structurally transparent. He never forces the flow of this music and masterly knows how to build a climax. This evening, I have discovered many niceties in this work that I had previously never noticed. And it is doubly praiseworthy that one never felt a pedantic effort to highlight details, this happened quite naturally. To make things better, the orchestra was at its resplendent best, expressive solo passages, amazingly warm and rich sound picture and real commitment from the musicians. If Thielemann lacks Böhm extraordinary sense of “special effect”, it is probably because Böhm never felt he had to “respect” a score that he felt as his very own.

Considering the sense of care that the conductor obviously have with every little aspect of the score, it is most curious that he did not always care to follow the composer’s description of what kind of voice goes for each role.  For example, the Kaiserin is supposed to be a hoch dramatisch soprano and the Amme, a dramatic mezzo soprano. Anne Schwanewilms is probably the less dramatic soprano who ever sang the role of the Empress. Although her voice has a cutting edge, it just does not work here: her high register is pinched, fluttery and often thin; her low register is mostly left to imagination and she has the habit of pecking at notes or finishing them by a downwards portamento that I find quite unsettling. I understand that one wishes to hear a crystalline sound in this role – and Schwanewilms has it and is obviously a sensitive singer and also a good actress – but, overparted as she is here, every advantage can only be counted as such if you take too many things in consideration. I frankly thought Manuela Uhl in Berlin far more consistent (although she isn’t either a hoch dramatisch sopran, at least she is a jugendlich dramatisch soprano with properly supported flashing top notes). Other than this, I am not being ironic when I say that, this evening, she offered one of the most exciting accounts of the melodrama I have ever heard. As for Michaela Schuster, even if one can see she has all the right ideas about the role of the Amme, her voice is too light for it. If Strauss gave the Kaiserin a lighter orchestral texture to pierce through, such is not the case of the mezzo soprano part. It does require a hefty, bright, exciting voice. This evening, I too often had to add in my mind Grace Hofmann from Karajan’s recording to fill in the blanks of an overshadowed if charismatic singer. I must say, though, that friends who saw her in previous performances told me that today was below her standard in this run.

I have to confess I found Stephen Gould’s name in the cast list with some surprise. Although he is a singer who definitely finds no problems in being heard over a large orchestra, the role of the Kaiser requires a brighter and higher voice than his. It is also true that many a Siegmund-esque Heldentenor has tried it, usually with little success. Gould did sing better than most – he can keep a line in some unsingable parts (and he even sang “es ist anstatt ihrer” instead of the usual replacement “es ist für die Herrin”) – but he often had to operate carefully and couldn’t avoid the strain in the end of his second “aria”. Wolfgang Koch was a reliable Barak who lacked a tiny little bit velvetier and a nobler tone, as Johan Reuter’s in Berlin and Michael Volle’s in Zürich (to keep within recent performances). With the exception of a Thomas Johanns Mayer’s Messenger Spirit (clearly in a bad-voice day), minor roles were uniformly strongly cast: Rachel Frenkel was a very accurate Voice of the Falcon, Peter Sonn sang the “young man”‘s long lines without effort and Markus Brück, Steven Humes and Andreas Conrad were the best trio of Barak’s brothers I have ever heard. I leave the best for last – an incandescent Evelyn Herlitzius in the best performance of her life. Since the bad press she got in Bayreuth for Ortrud, I notice she has done a very serious effort of re-thinking her singing and the result is a far more relaxed tonal quality, a cleaner attack in softer dynamics and a warmer sound. Here all of them used to great effect – without any loss in her Nilson-esque missile-like acuti that could fill a hall twice larger than the Grossesfestspielhaus. She also acted with great sincerity and commitment.

*The Vienna Philharmonic, which comprised of members of the Opera orchestra, appears in some of Karl Böhm’s live recording’s (including the one released by DGG with Birgit Nilsson), Herbert von Karajan’s live recordings and both Georg Solti’s live and studio recording).

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In the context of the Wagnerian Wochen, Kirtsten Harms’s production of Wagner’s Tannhäuser has been revived with a different cast and conductor, but the concept of having one singer for both Venus and Elisabeth, central to the production’s “message”, persists. In the original production, Nadja Michael proved to be miscast in both roles. Not the case this evening. Although Petra Maria Schnitzer is rather short on tonal richness, low notes and sexiness for Venus, she proved to be a most efficient Elisabeth. I refrain from the word “illuminating”, for Schnitzer is the kind of reliable singer who is sufficiently satisfying in every single department, but rarely takes you by surprise in anything. Her large lyric soprano has no glitches – her tonal quality is golden, she produces big top notes when this is required from her, she can fine her voice down to pianissimo and sings with good taste throughout – she even produced an intimate touching prayer in act III. Pity that Dietrich Henschel no longer possesses the nobility of tone for Wolfram. His vocal production was either rasp, throaty, fluttery, poorly supported, nasal or a combination of these. Where is Markus Brück when we need him? Pity also that the reliable Reinhard Hagen found some difficulties with the higher end of tessitura in the role of the Landgraf.

Conductor Ulf Schirmer offered transparent orchestral sound, with some exciting fast passagework from strings. I have missed the sheer voluminousness that Philippe Auguin could conjure last time – and some scenes dragged a bit: this was hardly the most sensuous Venusberg in the market. If things happen there in such low pace, I perfectly understand why Tannhäuser longed for green fields, nightingales and other rural articles. As usual, the Deutsche Oper Chorus did a terrific job.

I leave the best for last. I have always believed that Tannhäuser was a role condemned to be poorly sung. Today I was gladly proved wrong – Stephen Gould’s performance this evening should appear in the dictionary next to the entry “Tannhäuser”. His voice is at once big, firm, easy and pleasant. He phrases with musicality, has perfect diction, knows how to tackle declamatory passages with the dexterity of an Astrid Varnay, snarls when one wishes him to do so and even reserves unconstricted mezza voce for some key moments. Have I mentioned that he ended the opera almost as fresh-toned as in the beginning? There was no moment when the audience had to worry about the next dramatic top note. This is a singer in the top of his game in Wagnerian heroic repertoire.

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