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Posts Tagged ‘Torsten Kerl’

This current run of performances of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (a new production later to be reprised in Rome) in the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées did not seen to be unmissable in a first look: no big names in the cast (Michelle Breedt’s Brangäne being too ubiquitous to be regarded as such), which also happens to be a tad exotic and a conductor who has a difficult relationship with the Parisian public (a long difficult relationship, since he has been the musical director of the Orchestre Nationale de France for eight years).

Actually, the whole venture is more adventurous than I hinted at: this is the first time Daniele Gatti conducts Tristan. Considering my experience with him, I braced myself for “loud and slow “. Gatti, however, states that he has been preparing himself for that for a long time – and I cannot say he has not. The first impression I had from the prelude was how structurally clean and musically organized it was, even when the articulation in his string section could be more clear. It was the work of someone who really took the pains of determining how to present every layer in the texture and, most importantly, and which one is the Hauptstimme. The rest of act 1 confirmed my first opinion: accompanying figures propelled the performance in almost Verdian manner and “a tempo” (not slow neither fast – let’s say “natural”) seemed to be the rule, volume rather restrained to allow clarity.

My enthusiasm would be tested in the second act: the opening scene straight jacketed in the rigid beat suggested the mechanical rather than the energetic, and once Wagner’s concept begins to become more  fluid, Mr. Gatti’s weapons of choice too began to miss the mark. Act III is even more elusive and requires something that would gradually prove to be missing this evening: a vision. In his masterpiece, Wagner does not accept solutions “from the outside”: one really has to understand in his or her heart was this music is about before one sets his mind at work to discover how this “emotional truth” allows itself to become “music “. I don’t mean that Daniele Gatti is incapable of having this vision; it is just his first experience and the “infrastructure ” is already mostly there.

I saw Rachel Nicholls in 2008 in Kobe, singing Bach with Masaaki Suzuki. Then I wrote that it was pleasant to hear a big-voiced Bach soprano (although she was too loud for the orchestra and the venue). One or two years later I read an interview where she declared she was training to sing Wagner. As I couldn’t recall a precedent, I eagerly read her explanation of how there is only a difference in intensity but not in procedure: the Wagner sound being a development from her Bach sound, both beginning from the same core. This is a very good piece of advice (provided you really have the natural volume and stamina) – and I wanted to see if she was true to her explanation. However, her dramatic soprano career seemed restricted to regional opera houses and festivals. Until Emily Magee cancelled her participation in these performances.

After what I heard this evening, I must understand that this is the inevitable beginning of her international career. To put it simply, I had only heard a soprano sing Wagner’s dramatic roles with absolute legato and the same kind of “cantabile” one would expect in Verdi in recordings with Frida Leider or Florence Austral. Although Rachel Nicholls’s voice is not as imposing and big as these formidable ladies, it is absolutely natural, cleanly and easily produced as theirs were. She sings PHRASES, not groups of notes, her high c’s perfectly integrated to what happened before and after, all exposed acuti seamlessly and effortlessly connected. It is rather a high than a low voice, but the low register is natural and hearable. Furthermore, it is a young-sounding voice, almost too sweet for this role. But no – I have thoroughly enjoyed this feminine take on it. All that said, Ms. Nicholls’s Wagner, enticing as it is, is still work in progress. She has a very tame nature and, while she seems to be aware of that and evidently works hard for attitude, this is something she still has to discover. Also, her German, acceptable as it is, is still a bit cautious. And she has to figure out why her “a” often sounds like “ä” when things get high and loud.

Torsten Kerl too is a young sounding Tristan who produces unmistakably tenor-ish tones throughout. His voice has fine projection, but when Wagner demands truly heroic singing from him, he seems to shift to one invariable “Heldentenor”-gear, where the voice has a hint of a snarl. In any case, he sang with animation, clear diction, rhythmic alertness and got to the end of the opera almost as freshly as he started. Maybe if he too had more of a vision, his Tristan would have been a little bit more than getting to the end without fatigue, an “athletic” accomplishment not to be snobbed anyway.

At first, Michelle Breedt sounded a bit too smoky, but she settled into a compelling performance, with beautifully floated mezza voce in act II. Brett Polegato was a firm-toned, congenial Kurwenal, probably the all-round most interesting musical/dramatic accomplishment this evening. I cannot unfortunately say something similar of Steven Humes’s King Marke, nasal in tone, erratic in pitch and dramatically dull.

I have always found Pierre Audi’s productions on the decorative side – and not even to my taste. The rusty iron naval structures in act I did help to create some atmosphere, but the set of act II looked like the carcass of a whale and I could not see the point of the night-club decoration of Tristan’s “room” in Kareol. The costumes too were idiosyncratic, but the main problem was the fact that the director overlooked his cast’s acting limitations and just pretended this would sort itself out. It had not: these singers diligently followed gestures and attitudes they did not seem comfortable with and the point of which seemed to elude them entirely.

 

 

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Although Die tote Stadt is considered Korngold’s best opera, it had fallen of grace since the days when divas like Maria Jeritza appeared in it in opera houses like the Met. Until the 1980’s, when the Deutsche Oper (with Karan Armstrong and James King) gave it a try and performances occasionally but increasingly pop up here and there. I had never seen it live and know it from Erich Leinsdorf’s recording with Carol Neblett, René Kollo and Hermann Prey. I have to say that I still have to learn to like Korngold, but it is also true that I’ve never tried really hard. In any case, I had very low expectations, and this is always helpful in these situations.

On listening again to the Leinsdorf CDs, I’ve almost changed my mind about actually going to the New National Theatre today: the plot is bizarre, the demands on singers and orchestra are extreme, the music rarely takes off and, when it does, it turns out quite kitsch. Fortunately, the forces involved in this production – developed for the Finnish National Opera as seen on video with Camilla Nylund and Klaus Florian Vogt – took the challenge seriously. I cannot blame director Kasper Holten for sanitizing the staging of its pierrots, nuns, orgiastic dance numbers and gondolas. He has also found a not unwelcome comedy touch in serious scenes that helped the audience to indulge into something suspension of disbelief. However, the grotesque is a bit part of the story and this opera loses some of its flavor when rescued from its cheesiness. Conductor Jaroslav Kyzlink too has decided to deny it its operetta-ish undertones and go for the Frau-ohne-Schatten approach. And for someone like me who hasn’t yet acquired the taste for this opera, this seemed the right decision. The performance moved forward without indulgence, highlighting the coloristic orchestration and preferring objectivity to sentimentality. Of course, the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra is not Leinsdorf’s Müncher Rundfunkorchester, but – even if its strings like warmth and weight – these musicians played with great animation. Unfortunately, the effort would become more noticeable during the opera. The prelude to the third act was everything but polished. But the animation was still there – and that the conductor could keep it throughout is really praiseworthy.

I had seen Meagan Miller just once before – as Elisabeth here in the New National Theatre. It seems that bad girls bring the best in her. Although the voice lacks a distinctive color, has many tremulous moment and phrasing can be bumpy, she gave an exciting performance in the role of Marietta. First, her big lyric soprano is the voice for the role. Second, the high tessitura shows her best qualities (round, effortless top notes and endless stamina). Third, the provocative character suits her vocal nature better than the spiritual subtlety of Wagner’s Tannhäuser. Also, although she wouldn’t convince anyone that she could be a dancer, she seemed to be having the time of her life playing the femme fatale. It is hardly her fault if Torsten Kerl was this afternoon’s shining star. His spontaneous, glitch-free tenor gleams in this demanding part. And he sings elegantly and musicianly too. Under a conductor who never forgot his singers, his jugendlich dramatisch voice could be heard without problem. Moreover, if René Kollo sounds more tormented in the CDs, it is Kerl who makes this music sound singable and expressive in his tasteful legato and almost classical poise. I would say that the director did not seem to demand from him any sort of spiritual torment, the approach being rather detached and caricatured rather than internalized or intense. I had previously seen Anton Keremidtchev as Macbeth in Berlin and was positively surprised by the German side of his repertoire. His rich, sizable voice worked very well both in Frank’s conversational phrasing and in Fritz’s aria, in which I curiously didn’t miss Hermann Prey’s sophistication and variety. Although Makiko Yamashita (Brigitta) was not very clear in diction, her voice is extremely pleasant and the singer is stylish. All minor roles were well cast too.

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Even some die-hard Wagnerian would rarely or ever care to listen to anything before Der Fliegende Holländer – and Rienzi’s grand-opéra style and Italian setting might be rather unsettling for those used to valkyries riding flying horses. That said, in spite of its gigantic length, the opera reserves many hidden treasures in its event eventful plot and full-power score with its large-scale ensembles and vocally challenging main roles. It is only fitting that this work deserved a whole new production in the Deutsche Oper Berlin’s Wagner Wochen.

Adolf Hitler had a fancy for Rienzi – he even had a manuscript score in his bunker. This historical fact might have given director Philipp Stölzl the idea of relating the demagogic and equivocal Tribune Cola di Rienzi to the Führer and, to a certain extent, to the Duce. The connection is not unfounded – Rienzi seduced the people of a dilapidated nation and promised the restoration of its imperial status by the glorification of an idealized past and belligerence. However, it does not seem that Rienzi was a lunatic, but would rather deem himself well-meaning in his intent to raise a Rome ravaged by a self-interested elite and revive the rule of law. Portraying him as a childish deranged mind, with the excuse of quoting Charles Chaplin, is ultimately reducing the discussion to the simplistic explanation of insanity. In other words, making Rienzi a comical figure has the effect of belittling the social and historical phenomenon as mere folly, while History shows that the likes of Hitler or Stalin were not joking. And if the director is not ready to make a valid parallel, why making it in the first place? Better leave poor Rienzi in his XIVth century.

All that said, Stölzl’s staging has its qualities. First of all, it looks grandiose enough and that is something grand opéra cannot part with. The two-level set depicting Rienzi’s bunker and a public space dominated by a large screen on which Rienzi’s speeches are exhibited is visually striking. The use of film is aesthetically effective and benefits from the leading tenor’s histrionic talents. Although there is a bit too much clownishness in the approach, Torsten Kerl embraces the direction with gusto. It is a pity though that tiny wrong decisions finally undermine the interesting concept – the staged overture (should we stress again that this rarely is a good idea?) showing a stupid choreography (and again?) for Rienzi (!), wobbly and wrinkled flats, poorly synchronized slow-motion scenes and an Adriano portrayed as an awkward boy (let’s not forget that this was Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient’s role). Worst of all, we all know that the score is invariably cut for performances – but those should be determined by musical values. Here Wagner’s music is ruthlessly cut in order to help the director force his ideas on the plot. Act 5 is pared in such uneconomical way that one could hardly understand what was going on – Rienzi’s excommunication is almost left to imagination and Irene and Adriano’s relationship is reduced to kindergarten complexity.

The title role is a challenge to casting – it requires a heroic voice that should preside above very large ensembles and that should work in some low-lying declamatory passages and also almost classical poise to deal with the grupetti and legato demands of moments such Almächt’ger Vater. Torsten Kerl may lack the volume of a true Heldentenor, but his focused, forceful tenor finds no difficulties in this writing and the tonal quality is healthy and pleasant. He phrases with imagination and has crystalline diction. He should be an ideal Lohengrin and I would be curious to see his Kaiser in the Florentine production of Die Frau ohne Schatten in May. But I wonder how wise it is to tackle Siegfried (Paris, 2011).

Although the role of Adriano is in the limits of Kate Aldrich’s resources, she did not seem fazed by the role’s difficult demands. She sang with affection, offered a stylish account of her act III aria (shorn of the difficult passage that stands in for a cabaletta soon after) and acquitted herself rather neatly in high-lying dramatic passages. Camilla Nylund found less comfort in the role of Irene, which is too high for her voice in the first place. Her opaque high register would gain the minimally necessary brightness and roundness during the opera. In her last interventions, she would even produce some rich acuti. Among the minor roles, Ante Jerkunica proved to be a convincing Stefano.

Replacing an ailing Vladimir Jurovsky, maestro Sebastian Lang-Lessing offered an urgent account of the score, generating energy rather from bright-toned orchestral sound and clear articulation, for he wisely avoided heaviness and thickness, helping his light-voiced cast in many key passages. The orchestra had, however, its untidy moments, especially with brass instruments, but never showed itself less than animated. However, the excellent house chorus takes pride of place for its truly exciting performance – musical and dramatic values taken with same engagement and precision.

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