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Posts Tagged ‘Steve Davislim’

This year’s Baden-Baden Pfingfestspiele’s main feature is Bob Wilson’s staging of Weber’s Der Freischütz, to this day a favourite with German audiences (I mean, you have to put up with many a sing-along member of the audience in the next seat). As always, this opera is a favourite for interventionist stagings, but having an American director who has been applying the same “success formula” for decades could hardly be the answer to the search of novelty in such a well-loved and often-staged work. The truth is that Wilson’s highly stylized production sanitized the opera of all possibility of expression. Singers and chorus-members behaved like mechanical dolls, the stage action tempo was kept at very slow space and the geometrical sets were ingenious but rather blank. If I had to single out a very poor moment in the whole show, this would be the “black mass” presided by Samiel invented  to distract the audience while the sets were being changed for the Wolfschlucht scene, the merit of which was, at least, trying – for the one and only time in the whole concept – to depict the original stage instruction. In the rest of the opera, even dialogues were adapted to justify the director’s fancies.

Modern audiences, however, are used to be visually frustrated and have learnt to take refuge in the musical performance. Not here. The Festspielhaus Baden-Baden has particularly dry acoustics and having the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in the pit was a self-defeating solution. The orchestral sound could never blossom, both higher and lower ends of the aural spectrum were very restricted, valveless brass instruments were tested by the circumstances and the much demanded French Horn players had the worst time of their lives.  To make things worse, conductor Thomas Hengelbrock has poor control of ensembles, is careless about polish, has a fancy for pointless rit. and acc. effects – he seems like the Bizarro’s world version of Nikolaus Harnoncourt. The real world’s Harnoncourt has indeed recorded Freischütz with… the Berliner Philharmoniker, a hint Hengelbrock should have taken. No offense to the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, a praiseworthy ensemble when the circumstances allow it. As a compensation, the Philharmonia Chor Wien offered clear and well-balanced sounds throughout.

The acoustics had also a negative effect on soloists, draining their voices of resonance. In order to accommodate that, the conductor had a second reason to turn down the orchestra’s volume. As a result, arias such as Leise, leise almost sounded a capella. Nevertheless, my guess is that Bob Wilson’s straitjacket-like stage direction made singers ill at ease and that sort of thing obviously has an influence in their vocal performance. One could almost feel the moment when they were starting to find some animation, but then they remembered that they should stand still or walk like an Egyptian. Having graduated to big lyric role, Juliane Banse never failed to produce firm and velvety tone. She handled her big aria most commendably, but failed to produce the mezza voce required by Agathe’s prayer. On the other hand, the lovely Julia Kleiter was an ideal Ännchen whose acknowledged stage talents was wasted in this production. Steve Davislim’s Max worked at his best in purely lyrical passages, where his ease to produce soft head tones were most helpful. Otherwise, the role seemed too low for his voice and the more dramatic passages tested him sorely. Although Clemens Bieber’s performance in Berlin was far less varied, he offered far more solid singing in comparison. As the director gave Dimitry Ivashchenko more freedom of movement, he accordingly seemed the most spontaneous singer in the cast. His ease with passagework helped him when Hengelbrock decided to play each couplet in his drinking son increasingly faster. For a singer who usually sings Sarastro, he deals with the higher tessitura with some comfort, but, in this hall, his voice could be a bit more forceful (or maybe I am spoiled by Theo Adam in Carlos Kleiber’s recording). When Paata Burchuladze opened his mouth and such a voluminous voice finally conquered the difficult acoustics, I felt I could overlook the wobbling, but after some minutes I changed my mind.

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Mozart’s over-the-top-on-purpose Singspiel Die Entführung aus dem Serail has been performed only 67 times in the Metropolitan Opera House. Some might say that the German dialogues might have something to do with that; I would rather blame the impossible casting: something like the German version of a soprano drammatico d’agilità, a flexible lyric tenor with an absolutely free top register, a soubrette with in alts and a basso profondo (profondissimo?) with perfect control of divisions and ease for patter… in German. If you check the discography, most symptomatically no recording features a cast like that.

You might imagine how much of a challenge this work is for any opera house. If the Met did not produce a cast in the standards of a Gruberová/Araiza/Moll-team, it is only because singers like that do no exist these days. Before I am accused of ungenerosity, I hasten to explain that I am convinced that today’s is the best possible casting one could think of. In the case of Matthew Polenzani, I still wonder if he does not belong to the shortlist of great Belmontes. It is true that the frequentation of heavier roles has robbed a bit of the golden quality of his tenor, but he still sings it with impressive fluency and richness of tone. Probably only Wunderlich would offer such liquid warmth in this demanding role. What I’ve missed is precisely the way the legendary German tenor caressed his fioriture, while Polenzani sounds a bit as if he were really looking forward to the end of every fastidious melisma. Belmontes less gifted by nature – such as Kurt Streit or the late Deon van der Walt – finally pulled out more convincing results in those tricky moments. Maybe this unease explains the adoption of the simplified version of Wenn der Freuden.

Diana Damrau could be a great Konstanze – she does have a most spontaneous high register, impressively clean fioriture and some heft. More solid low notes would help, but that is a problem even some very great Konstanzes (such as Gruberová) had to deal with. However, what will always remain a liability in Mozartian repertoire (with the possible exception of the Queen of the Night, the role that made Damrau famous) is an impure, metallic, harsh quality in her vocal production that devoids it entirely of loveliness. I am dying to use the word “focus” (because I use it a lot), but that is exactly what her soprano wants. The lack of focus prevents her from producing clean trills, from piercing through ensembles when in her middle and low registers and finally and most seriously from offering truly consistent legato. I notice she is a very energetic person – and sometimes singers with such disposition tend to overkill a bit. In any case, I don’t wish to complain about her performance: Diana Damrau is an extraordinarily intelligent singer, who invests her lines and phrases with such dramatic understanding and meaning that one cannot help enjoying her work. Her ease with mezza voce is also a strong asset. The descending serpentine phrasing in the end of Traurigkeit has rarely been so expressively handled and the way she blended her voice with the strings in des Himmels Segen belohne dich (in Matern aller Arten) was spellbinding.

Kristinn Sigmundsson was an excellent Osmin. The extreme low notes were not his best moments (as with almost every bass in this role), but his dark firm tone, his flexibility, imagination and sheer charisma were more than compensation. I had only seen this Icelandic Bass in serious roles and did not know he had such a bent for comedy!

Aleksandra Kurzak has the right quicksilvery voice for Blondchen and did not seem fazed with the very high notes in Dürch Zärtlichkeit. On the other hand, the voice lacks some substance and Welche Wonne, Welche Lust was a bit brittle. I felt somewhat sorry for Steve Davislim. He does not seem to be a very playful fellow and did seem a bit annoyed with having to play the ebullient Pedrillo. That did not prevent him from offering a firm-toned Frisch zum Kampfe, though.

It must sound surprising, however, that the shining feature of today’s performance was David Roberton’s masterly conducting. Rarely have I seen the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra so adept in Mozart style as today – the strings were entirely at ease with the rapid passagework, the level of clarity was admirable, not to mention the sense of animation so important in this score. Robertson offered vigorous, crystalline and dramatic alert conducting – the overture itself was exemplary in the way it filled the “Turkish” and “European” themes with the sense of storytelling.

If I am not mistaken, John Dexter’s is the Met’s old production from 1979. It still looks well in its Henri Rousseau-like portrayal of a cardboard Turkey. Some costumes look a bit 70’s-bound and the stage direction is only fair, if unobtrusive. I have to confess a more positive Selim than Matthias von Stegmann would be helpful. His portrayal is so devoid of menace and passion that it makes difficult to understand why Konstanze would fear or respect him at all.

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