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Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Hampson’

Christian Thielemann’s reputation as a Straussian conductor is somewhat older than his as a Wagnerian, and I would dare to say that, although he is often mentioned as some sort of Bayreuth’s great hope, R. Strauss’s music is still the repertoire where all his strengths lie. His instincts are basically almost invariably right in this music, his ability to produce perfectly transparent textures in large scale is admirable, and the sense of forward movement and objectivity that make his Wagner sometimes insensitive drain his Strauss of all hint of sentimentality.

This evening, the conductor decided to explore some rare Straussian pieces with famous soloists to draw a larger audience. The orchestral numbers were composed in circumstances that explain their almost complete oblivion today: the Festmusik for the city of Vienna was a 1942 official command and, although the Festliches Präludium was composed in 1913, it was performed in the celebration of the German chancellor’s birthday in 1943. While the former is a quite uninteresting piece for brass instruments and timpani, the later is an impressive (if rather shallow) tour-de-force for organ and great orchestra expertly calculated to produce a standing ovation (as in this evening). Thielemann resisted the temptation of overdoing the effect and gave a sober yet powerful rendition of this exuberant score.

The conductor’s sense of balance proved providential for his soloists – Renée Fleming offered a gorgeously and stylishly sung Traum durch die Dämmerung over a delicate carpet of orchestral sound. Winterliebe requires a lighter touch for its upwards melisme that made it a bit difficult for her to pierce through, but she still then eschewed any vulgarity. The Gesang der Apollopriesterin (op. 33-2) showed the soprano in her best form and behavior – savoring the text, coloring it with imagination and producing beautiful round top notes throughout. In Waldseligkeit, she could not find the necessary ethereal mezza voce, but her voice has inbuilt floating quality and she handled the lower end of the tessitura better then most. Thomas Hampson’s baritone is a bit higher than almost everything he sang this evening requires; he could barely be heard in the bottom of his range and exposed high notes were a bit rough. Nonetheless, he showed himself as an ideal interpreter for the somber declamation of both the Hymnus (op.33-3) and the Notturno (op. 44-1) and still produce the right hearty enthusiasm for the Pilgers Morgenlied (op.33-4). Thielemann provided kaleidoscopic sounds, perfectly blended to his singers, knowing the right moment when he should and could boost his orchestra and when to scale it down to give pride of place to vocal effects.

Both singers would appear again in the big romantic scene in the second act of Arabella. Fleming’s clear diction and creamy tones worked to perfection. When she decides to put her jazzy mannerisms aside (as in this evening), one can really understand why she is considered the leading Straussian of her generation. Hampson had to work hard for impact, but blended exquisitely in Und du wirst mein Gebieter sein. The audience would also be treated to the prelude to act III, where Thielemann proved not only to have a superior understanding of the structure of this passage, but also to make it sound consequent, polished, animated and surprisingly beautiful. The Berliner Philharmoniker responded in the great manner during the whole evening. I really can’t wait to hear his Frau ohne Schatten in Salzburg this Summer.

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The Metropolitan Opera House has been more faithful to Russian opera than many important opera houses around the world outside Russia. Many Russian singers have achieved international fame at the Met – and the New York audience is quite keen on this repertoire. That said, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Oneguin is not necessarily a work in need of advocacy – it is probably the best known Russian opera in the West and the Met accordingly gave it well-loved singers.

Robert Carsen’s production has seen some glamourous casting – it has been featured on DVD with Renée Fleming and Dmitri Hvorostovsky in leading roles – but it is not in itself a glamourous production. On the contrary, it is simplicity itself. The bare white stage receives props for each scene and colour is largely provided by Michael Levine’s beautiful costumes. In the countryside scenes, the use of autumn leaves is poetic and creates the necessary atmosphere, but the Moscow scenes just needed something. As it is, the audience has the impression of watching a rehearsal.

If I had to mention the reason for this Onegin’s sucess, I would mention Jiri Belohlavek’s conducting. To start with, the Met’s orchestra seemed transfigured – offering voluminous, rich and warm sounds throughout. Belohlavek’s noble, pensive approach fits the work melancholy – some may say that he drained a bit of the Russian-ness of the score, but I considered the gain in expressive, almost Straussian atmosphere most welcome.

Karita Mattila’s soprano is smokier and less impetuous in both ends than it used to be – but the sound is irresistibly warm and creamy. She soared in ensembles and fulfilled her solos with immense depth of feeling. Her stage portrayal, from shy teenager to socialite, was expertly produced. Ekaterina Semenchuk’s solid mezzo soprano made Olga a bit more substantial than we are used to see.  Although Thomas Hampson was a bit fazed by Act III demands, his was an intelligent and elegantly sung performance. However, Piotr Beczala will remain the audience’ s favourite member in the cast. He sung with beauty of tone, sensitivity and good taste – Nicolai Gedda is the name that came to my mind. And this is a high compliment.

Among the minor roles, Wendy White deserves praise for a smoothly sung Madame Larina and  Barbara Dever was a touching Filippyevna. James Morris, on the other hand, was a bit rusty as Prince Gremin – and the role ideally requires a darker and deeper voice.

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Two orchestras, of course. That is why the Theatro Municipal in Rio was crowded for the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester all-Mahler concert under Philippe Jordan on Sunday afternoon. Many might say that having Thomas Hampson for a selection of songs from the Knaben Wunderhorn could explain a bit of appeal, but the truth is that an amazingly precise and virtuosistic account of the 6th symphony met with far more success with the audience. Mahler’s orchestral songs are always hard to pull out live – the orchestra is too big and the composer has a fondness for singers’ middle registers (making it hard to pierce through the large orchestra). Hampson generally made himself heard, truth be said, but even if he still has retained most tools in his kit of expressive tone colouring, his baritone has lost a bit of its honeyed quality and exposed passages lacked flowing quality. I understand that in order to make for this unease with legato, he chose only “military” songs in the cycle. The result was rather tautological.

The singer would face a sort of anthropological experience. Part of the audience had not been introduced to the practice of restraining from applause until the end of a program’s part and decided to clap their hands in approval after each song. The rest of the audience decided to show their education by energetically shh-ing them. The pro-applause group has decided to react by applauding with renewed enthusiasm. By the third installment of this battle of wills, the soloist himself decided to intervene. “Thank you very much, I really am honoured, but these songs require concentration and I would ask you to applause only in the end”. These words sufficed to produce the necessary silence – even after the last song. Encouragement from the orchestra cued the audience to deserved cheering.

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