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Posts Tagged ‘Stig Andersen’

Before Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker add Stefan Herheim’s production to their Salome, the audience in Berlin was treated to two concert previews in the Philharmonie, which – if I am not mistaken – also mark Emily Magee’s debut in the title role. I can only imagine that this is a favorite score for the members of the Philharmonic, for they played with the kind of engagement that only now and then seems to appear in “Rolls-Royce” orchestras.

If I had to declare which was my favorite concert with the BPO and Simon Rattle, this would probably be it. The Philharmonic denied its musical director nothing: the strings particularly protean in varying from the noblest, warmest and fullest glimmering sounds to the most colorful descriptive effects; inspired and dramatically aware solos from woodwind and brass and impressively kaleidoscopic collective effects,  especially in the closing scene. Rattle presided over the ensemble with a loving eye, bringing the lyricism to the fore, giving time for this music to breathe and relishing the harmonic complexity by highlighting every little tiny dissonance in the score, for illuminating results. However, there remains the problem of balancing soloists and the formidable orchestra, especially in concert version. Although I generally accuse the English conductor of being inattentive to his singers, I have to acknowledge that this time he really tried. He opted for the difficult compromise of finding the optimal point in which the orchestra could keep its refulgence without entirely covering singers’ voices. A risky choice that required permanent adjustment. It is true that he proved to have amazing control of his musicians, by demanding very precise dynamical up and down-scaling in volume while avoiding abruptness entirely. As always, this had a cost. First, a sense of cautiousness haunted the first half of the opera, with the extra effect of a certain “hysteria” in the moment when the instruments were alone at last. Although it was undeniably exciting to hear the Philharmonic unleashed, these moments require not only more “space” to grow but also depend on the Straussian hallmark chiaroscuro to come to life. As it was, things had to develop from 95% to 100% in moments like the passage which depicts Jochanaan being brought out of his cistern. On the other hand, the Dance of the Seven Veils lacked spirit – beautiful as the sound was, the orchestra seemed too ready to let it all out instead of relishing the art-nouveau filigree concocted by Strauss. In the closing scene, Rattle finally seemed to have chosen the orchestra over his soloists – and, although the poor singers had to work hard for the money, the orchestral performance was so dense, so multi-layered that one could not help surrendering. The composer himself referred to his opera as a “scherzo with a tragic ending” and the conductor proved this evening to have understood that. Probably never since Böhm’s CDs from Hamburg (alas, with a sub par orchestra) had I heard a performance in which the thematic material presented as “atmospheric” in the Jochanaan/Salome scene was so precisely restated in the final scene now under a quasi-grotesque coloration. I would be curious to know how this is going to work in the Grosses Festpielhaus.

Every time I write about this opera’s title role, I repeat that a natural Salome has a bright voice above all to allow her to pierce through the orchestra without having to switch to fifth gear every time things get difficult. But the likes of Ljuba Welitsch are unfortunately very rare. With her creamy-toned floating soprano, Emily Magee hardly fits the description. It is true that her voice is big enough, but its delicate hue is too often overshadowed by the orchestra and the low notes basically remain on stage. That said, among the almost invariably miscast singers I have seen in this part, she was probably the best. First of all, she has really solid technique and never, ever forces. As a result, her soprano is never less than round, easy and pleasant. Although one could see that this is a difficult role, she didn’t have to work herself up to deal with it, but rather manage her resources with shrewdness. By the moment when most Salomes are screaming themselves out, Magee still produced flowing Straussian lines, the occasional pianissimo and remained true to intonation, although you wouldn’t always hear that.  Second, she has no problem with high notes, what is always reassuring when one is about to hear a long piece of excruciatingly difficult singing. Finally, her Salome is refreshingly spontaneous. Although her voice does not have a virginal quality, she eschews vulgarity and affectation, suggesting quite appropriately rather a perverse child coveting a toy she cannot play with. Moreover, she handles the declamatory writing adeptly and has relatively clear diction.

Iain Paterson’s spacious, noble and ductile baritone works beautifully in the role of Jochanaan. He too suffered from the competition with the orchestra and seemed a bit tired by the end of his long scene with Salome, but this did not prevent him from offering an intelligent and theatrical performance. A name to keep. Stig Andersen did not seem to be in a good day – one would hardly guess that he has sung Wagnerian roles by what one heard this evening – but he did sing the part of Herod; even the most verbose moments never lacked a flowing singing line, not to mention that he colored the text with unusual intelligence. I don’t feel like being objective about Hanna Schwarz: she is great and that’s it. At this stage of her career, her voice is not exactly beautiful, but still impressively forceful and focused. If someone found no problem in a loud orchestra this evening, this would be her (and a powerfully dark-toned Rinat Shaham as the page of Herodias). And there is not an ounce of nonsense in that woman – she is simply mesmerizing. Last but not least, among the minor roles, Oliver Zwarg’s deserves mention as the First Soldier.

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I have read a lot about Robert Carsen’s production of Wagner’s Tannhaeuser and regretted that I could not be in Paris to check it. So when I read that it would be restaged in Rome, I’ve decided to follow Elisabeth’s advice: Nach Rom! However, here I am in Rome, but not Carsen’s production… The Teatro dell’Opera had later on checked its pocket and realized that, oops, they couldn’t afford to bring it. I felt inclined to be upset, but since they took the decision to hire Riccardo Muti as musical director, I have been trying to keep my mind open to the Roman opera house’s decisions. But, as much as Tannhaeuser had to keep his eyes closed not to see Italy’s charming landscape, I felt I should do the same before Filippo Crivelli’s ad hoc production. OK, limited budget is always challenging etc, but what I have just seen vies with Cecilia Bartoli’s new CD’s cover for the title of human race’s ugliest creations. And the idea was to knock you out from moment one.

Venusberg is basically an archway made of pink fabric upon which imaged of naked women taken from famous paintings were projected. Ah, and there was a couch for Venus, whose costume is reminiscent  of Disney’s The Little Mermaid. When the mention of the Virgin Mary’s name transforms the whole thing in Thuringia, Crivelli must have thought of the DDR, since it basically consists of three sets of flat tree trunks with a catwalk on the background. Act II was more conventional – it looks like the Met’s production bar the money. To make things worse, the show was truly poorly lit and the costumes left a lot to be desired. I leave the worst for last – Gillian Whittingham’s coreography for the bacchanale. Some of my neighbours laughed, while I tried to look away out of compassion.  In a few words, the idea seemed to have some people running back and forth or giving hands to each other and circling. Seriously, if vice looks like that, one can perfectly understand why Tannhaeuser longs so much for the Virgin Mary.

As it was, Béatrice Uria-Monzon had to provide all the sexiness by herself. Her soft-grained yet spacious mezzo soprano does seduction without much ado, but the exposed dramatic high notes test her sorely. I do not know if the conductor tried to help her with very fast tempi in the Venusberg scene, but apparently only made her lag behind the beat at moments. Martina Serafin seemed to inhabit an entirely different theatrical and vocal universe. Although she is Viennese, her whole approach suggests the words soprano lirico spinto. She has a warm, large, rich soprano, approaches phrasing almost like a Verdian soprano, with portamento aplenty and a Renata Tebaldi-ian cantabile glamour. The comparison with Tebaldi is not accidental – although she is very expressive, it is some sort of generalized yet touching expressivity. Also, her whole stage attitude has an old-fashioned grandeur, hardly compatible with the virtuous Elisabeth. In any case, this is a voice of impressive resources albeit not entirely in control. Many loud top notes came off poorly focused or harsh, and her mezza voce is not really reliable. Dich teure Halle was rather solid than triumphant, but her act III prayer was sensitively done. I am not entirely convinced that Tannhaeuser is a good role for Stig Andersen. His voice is not truly large, but he produces some forceful top notes now and then, provided that there is not many of them in sequence, for they noticeably tax him. Because of the stress, his praising of Venus in act I was quite arthritic, but he finally pulled out act III out of the freshness of his approach. Whereas many a tenor in this repertoire would tell his pilgrimage to Rome as a stretch of heroic singing, Andersen sang it with restraint, savoring the words, creating the impression of a broken spirit, coloring the Pope’s wolds with real scorn. A flawed yet valid performance. Matthias Goerne also has problems with high notes – anything above mezzo forte is dealt with either strain or head voice. But the whole performance seemed to be conveyed to the Abendstern song, which was so exquisitely performed that one would forgive him anything. Finally, Christof Fischesser was a reliable Hermann in spite of the occasional curdled-toned moments.

After a bumpy act I, conductor Daniel Kawka settled into such a honest performance that he finally won me over with his transparent ensembles, natural pace and cleanliness. I particularly appreciate the way he embraced the orchestra’s sound – bright and flexible, as many Italian orchestras tend to produce – instead of trying to impose a Teutonic large and fat sound that would only vex them. And the house orchestra was in good shape – the brass section could be nobler, but was quite clean, the lean-sounding string sections produced liquid divisions and everybody kept animation to the last chord. It is a pity that the chorus was way below that level – the women are particularly problematic, including what regards intonation.

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