Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Vitalij Kowaljow’

I once had a teacher who would invariably give me the same piece of advice whenever I looked frustrated for not being able to achieve something: if you want the result, concentrate on the process. Although Herbert von Karajan is usually remembered for his megalomania, he was an artist of unsual perseverance, fastidiousness and discipline. Even if he would hardly admit it, he was always looking for the best and, therefore, was always open to development. For instance, his ambition of conducting Italian opera led him to Milan where he could learn from working with the likes of Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi. Or he would mention in an interview how much he admired a particularly passage of Tosca as conducted by Victor de Sabata. His Wagnerian projects were even higher in purpose. Name an important artist related to the master of Bayreuth – and you will see that somehow somewhere Karajan had worked with him or her at some point. In other words, before he finally launched his greatest project – the Ring conducted and directed by himself in a festival created also by him – he had researched every kind of approach and gathered all kind of experiences in order to have a very clear idea of what he wanted to do.

But that is not the most important part. The real formula to success there was the fact that he truly concentrated on the process. As the Easter Festival has shown in two documentaries screened in an exhibition in the Salzburg Museum, Karajan took the pains of coaching his cast in painstaking detail, rehearsing his orchestra obsessively, recording everything before stage rehearsals began and minutely blocking the gesture of every Valkyrie on stage. As the narrator of one of these videos explained, “he left nothing to chance”. That was the spirit of the Easter Festival – knowing that the audience was being served the absolute best because there was a mastermind there making sure that the best was being served.

When I read that the Easter Festival was celebrating its jubilee by paying a tribute to Karajan’s inaugural 1967 production of Wagner’s Die Walküre and reviving Günther Schneider-Siemssen’s sets in a new production directed by Vera Nemirova and conducted by Christian Thielemann, I decided that I had to see this. I have been introduced to Wagner’s music by friends who had regularly seen Karajan in Salzburg and never ceased to tell me about the paramount standards of these performances (they would also made me frustrated by saying that neither CDs nor DVDs could give an idea of how splendid everything was). As expectations can play tricks on one’s perceptions, I have decided to keep them low – but this evening’s performance has surprised me in how wrongly things can go with a big budget and prestigious forces.

If I say that the best thing in Vera Nemirova’s production is the scenery designed by Schneider-Siemssen, I am still not even close to explaining how poorly conceived and executed it was. To say the truth, there is not truly a concept there: the audience left the theatre without any new information or extra insight about this story and these characters. However, one could clearly see how amateurishly staged it was. Characters would most often than not do things opposed to what the text requires (for example, they would leave when they were supposed to stay or stay when they were supposed to leave); actors would be placed in a way incoherent to the action (Sieglinde says she is watching the veins in Siegmund’s temples although they are 10 meters apart); or things were just wrong (Wotan doesn’t shatter Siegmund’s sword, the pieces of which would inexplicably later appear in Brünnhilde’s hands). In an interview, Ms. Nemirova says she rejected the original costumes, because they did not make the characters look like real people. I wonder what kind of people she knows, for everything looked terribly unconvincing. At least, the 1967 costumes had some éclat, which is more of what I can say about the ones seen this evening, which look like everyone went for their morning run but Sieglinde, who is dressed as Snow White’s evil stepmother.

In any case, I could have lived with the school-pantomime direction if the musical performance had made it irrelevant. The Staatskapelle Dresden is one of the world’s best orchestras, as one could hear (and marvel at) Myung-Whun Chung’s Fauré/Saint-Saëns concert on Friday and Franz Welser-Möst’s Mahler concert on Saturday. One could also hear that in Christian Thielemann’s own Bruckner concert on Sunday (in spite of problematic French horns). But not today. The extra rich and warm strings were often reduced to inaudbility, the brass section would sound unsubtle and glitch-prone, ensemble was often unclear and disjoint, tempi had inexplicable fluctuation and many a mannered unwritten “dramatic” pause, not to mention the high level of false entries that could suggest the highly improbable hypothesis of insufficient rehearsing. I have already seen Thielemann conduct Die Walküre in Bayreuth: although there could be lack of expression and drama, the orchestral sound was invariably rich and beautiful. On hearing the undernourished and unbalanced orchestra this evening I could only wonder if he wanted to try a Karajan-esque “chamber Ring” approach. If that was indeed the case, that was not a very good idea. Differently from Thielemann, Karajan was able to adapt his orchestral sound into a transparent, light but penetrating sound that would envelope singers’ voices without drowning them.

The main victim of this misconception was act I. After an underpowered and awkward opening, the performance never seemed to settle in its meagerness of sound, surprisingly high level of mistakes and indequate casting. Act II was only marginally better due to the contribution of individual singers, which seemed to inspire the conductor to let himself and the orchestra go a little bit more. Predictably, Wotan’s long monologue set a new lowest level of uneventfulness the purpose of which seemed to be offsetting a staid closing scene. As in Bayreuth, act III would show a palpable improvement, but only after a band-like and vulgar Walkürenritt. Maybe the ten singers on stage had the power of finally eliciting an orchestral sound of Wagnerian proportions. Brünnhilde and Wotan fortunately could benefit from the transformation and offer the first truly moving moment in this performance. That would not last to the magic fire music, when the proceedings returned to their heavy, unsubtle and unclear standards.

On paper, Anja Harteros is an interesting idea for the role of Sieglinde. Hers is a sizeable soprano with enough warmth in its low reaches to deal with Italian roles such as the Leonora in La Forza del Destino. The actual performance, however, had very different results. The part seats on the least congenial area of her voice, which often sounded smoky and astrigent. The advantage of a lyric soprano in the role is the dynamic variety and sense of legato, as one can hear in Gundula Janowitz’s performance for Karajan. Not this evening, though: Ms. Harteros’s singing had very little variety and affection. Also her attempt of an interpretation seemed mannered, as much as her stage attitude had more than a splash of the grande dame, an odd choice for an orphaned girl forced into an abusive marriage against her will. Her twin brother took the improbable shape of Peter Seiffert, who looked old, tired and bored as Siegmund. Although it is still a beautiful voice that projects well in the auditorium, the low notes are left to imagination and the high ones are open in tone and unstable in quality, some of them sung in indeterminate pitch. Although both of them were quite hearable, the conductor seemed keen on keeping the orchestra very low whenever they were on stage. Georg Zeppenfeld’s noble and round-toned Hunding did not help to create much sense of drama.

Act II had compensation in terms of singing. Although Christa Mayer’s mezzo could do with a little bit more color, her Fricka was forcefully and intensely sung. Her theatrical engagement seemed to inspire the musicians in the pit into offering a little bit more in terms of commitment. Even if Vitalij Kowaljow’s bass does not sound as voluminous in the Großes Festspielhaus as it had at La Scala, it remains a voice of admirable firmness and beauty of tone throughout the complete range. If he has clear diction and sense of line, act II still lacks spontaneity and expression, but he lived up to the challenge of the closing scene, when he showed control of mezza voce and musicianship. The shining feature of this performance, however, is Anja Kampe’s sensitive, touching Brünnhilde, sung in the ideal blend of velvet and steel. The sincerity of her interpretation and her naturalness and emotional generosity made it a beautiful tribute to the singer who took this role here 50 years before, Régine Crespin, whose Brünnhilde was also exemplary in its wide expressive range.

Read Full Post »

According to the program of his staging of Das Rheingold, director Guy Cassiers believes his Ring is a Ring of the “present moment” as an opposition to a historical approach. Although his dramaturgs’ grandiloquent ideas hardly make into what one sees on stage, he might have  unintentionally achieved his aim by producing the first ever interactive staging of the Ring. First, he has done the unthinkable feat of creating consensus among Wagnerians. Yes, the ballet dancers are gone! La Scala’s bible-like program even shows photos of two green ones hanging from ropes, but it seem that the audience has had the last word and they were dispatched back to where they should have never left. The Corriere de la Sera has also published an article where Waltraud Meier says that the director does not help its cast and is more concentrated on his video projections. Although this kind of pre-première statement is usually considered ungentlemanly (or, in the case, unladylike…), readers seemed to have taken her side. Maybe that is why she (and, for that matter, neither Siegmund) are not wearing the elaborate costumes portrayed in the program.

In any case, Meier has a point – if there is any stage direction to speak of in this production, one probably has to wear 3-D glasses to see it… The approach to acting as seen this evening is basic the classical stand-and-deliver while remaining singers on stage basically watch it with generalized concerned expressions. Not Waltraud Meier, who tries to apply her famous histrionic skills when she finds space for that. It is true that her maneuvers may have become something of a routine by now, but they have actually rescued many scenes of complete boredom. I have to confess that I find her understanding of change of moods in the final act really masterly. Although stage direction is supposed to be the main element of a staging, there is more than that in a staging – and expertly devised sets, costumes and effects can ultimately deliver what is missing elsewhere. Not here, I am afraid. Mr. Cassiers’s philosophically and psychologically overcharged ideas are often scenically realized with the depth of a schoolboy’s drawing. As a result, the audience has to deal with very elementary imagery (and remember: clueless and cueless actors) in a long opera. The depthlessness of Hunding’s house is portrayed with… video projections showing a fireplace, just like those DVDs you can buy to pretend you have a fireplace. It made me afraid that they would use the fishbowl one in the next scene. And there are giant white toothpicks – I know they are supposed to be giant spears, but they look like giant toothpicks – landing on stage during Winterstürme. The toothpicks are such important stage devices that they become… tree trunks in the forest-landscape of act II. Images are, of course, projected on them – when singer sings about Glut, you have… flames, for example. After all, how the audience would understand the reference without it? During the Siegmund/Brünnhilde scene, the projection of a leaf-canopy becomes sequences of falling computer numbers. I thought it was just my imagination, but that is indeed a quote from Matrix. Remember – this is a Ring of the “present time”… In act III, the Walkürenritt is a group of ladies in stylized black Victorian dresses on top of wood-crates. And Brünnhilde’s magic fire is 10 or 11 red steaming lamps (two of them not working). Wotan’s costumes suggests that he was found in a dumpsite, that Brünnhilde is a regular at the party-scene in Berlin, that Fricka has just come from Paris Fashion Week and that Sieglinde and Siegmund are actually using the costumes borrowed from a normal staging of Die Walküre.

As you see, one had to concentrate on the musical side of the performance. And that also required some sort of commitment from the audience. The house orchestra clearly was not in the mood. Daniel Barenboim quickly understood that making energetic gestures did not elicit from these musicians any extra ounce of enthusiasm, so he started to make energetic noises. To very little avail. From some point on, I started to suspect that the noises were meant to show the audience that he was trying. If I have to be fair, a great share of responsibility for the act-1 debacle goes to the singers. Waltraud Meier was simply not in good voice. As always, she is such a cunning performer that she took any opportunity for quiet singing to score her interpretative points, but she could not really sing anything relatively high above mezzo forte. She was clearly saving for act III, where her understated and heartfelt account of the Redemption motive fitted her waning vocal resources*. Replacing Simon O’Neill, Frank van Aken was so visibly nervous that it is almost a miracle that something really bad did not happen. He lacked concentration, had a hit-or-miss approach to breathing (he often let go breathing pauses only to get breathless in the next ten seconds) and does not really seem to have a natural Siegmund voice. As heard here, the tonal quality was often curdled and the sound had a patch of nasality. I would really need to see him under other circumstances to say something. Next to John Tomlinson, tenor and soprano sounded mousy. But he was approximative with pitch and overcareful with the high end of his range. The lack of direction made his Hunding particularly short of menace. Having to deal with this situation, the conductor could do nothing but play down an orchestra that has no tonal refulgence in softer dynamics.

Act II took off more promisingly. The orchestra had a more positive, if not necessarily polished or exciting sound and some fresh-voiced singers left the maestro more operational space. I have often read about how Nina Stemme can be a special singers, but my only experience with her (a closing scene from R. Strauss’s Salome with Ingo Metzmacher and the DSO in the Philharmonie Berlin) was quite disappointing. I am glad to say that this evening I could finally have the complete Nina-Stemme-experience. First of all, she was in excellent voice and, although she does not have the bright-toned impact of Irène Théorin, she offers the modern version of the Helen-Traubel-approach to Brünnhilde, with her round, plush, extra warm soprano with impressively sensuous low notes and seamless legato. Although one can feel that the exposed top notes require some preparation from her, she offered very commendable Ho-jo-to-ho‘s and transported the audience to a state of grace with her exquisite account of the act 3 Wotan/Brünnhilde scene, when her command of dynamic effects and expressive, shapely phrasing could melt a Wagnerian heart. She has also a very positive stage presence and made the best of very little. To make things better, Russian mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova offered a Fricka in the grand manner. Her full-toned, rich singing was matched by her intense delivery of her demands to Wotan and by her regal bearing. Finally, Ukranian bass-baritone Vitalij Kowaljow is a name to keep. He still has to develop his performance and ran a bit out of steam by the end, but he is a legitimate Wagnerian Heldenbariton and offered a far more secure account of the role than both Mark Delavan in Berlin and Albert Dohmen in Bayreuth earlier this year. These singers added a new life to the performance and, around act 3, the atmosphere was entirely changed. La Scala’s orchestra never achieved true brio this evening, but at least the proceedings acquired a Wagnerian scale after the second intermission. If I had a question to Mr. Barenboim, this would be – why keeping such considerate tempi with an orchestra that cannot fill in the slow pace with a big, intense sound? If that contributed to beautiful chamber-like sonorities in Brünnhilde’s pleas to Wotan in their last scene, it robbed most of any other moment of nobility and profoundness.

* disclaimer: I really like Waltraud Meier’s more intimate O hehrstes Wunder! For me, it describes more effectively Sieglinde’s gratitude than the usual full-powers approach.

Read Full Post »

Although Don Carlo is a work often staged by the main opera houses in the world these days, few theatres could boast to cast it with such a starry group of singers as the Met, especially in the rarer Italian five act version. When the curtains open at the Fontaineblau’s scene, the Romantic Kaspar David Friedrich-like images sound promising indeed, in spite of a not entirely welcome coziness of atmosphere. However, the next scenes are bureaucratically staged and never did the auto-da-fé look so comfortable to look at – maybe Republican sensibilities would rather avoid the burning of the heathen in front of the audience… The sense of routine would not be improved by Fabio Luisi’s highly irregular conducting. He showed slack control over his forces: the orchestral phrasing was often imprecise and most ensembles sounded disjointed. The auto-da-fé was also from the musical point of view a non event – undisciplined choir and brass section would not help him anyway. Acts IV and V showed a noticeable improvement, also because the singers seemed to reach their best form then.

Although Sondra Radvanovsky’s firm creamy soprano has some artifficialites in order to make for a certain immaturity in this repertoire, she more than measured up to the big moments, especially a vocally immaculate act V, crowned by exquisite pianissimo singing. The same cannot unfortunately be said of Violeta Urmana’s Eboli. Of course this favourite singer displayed her customary musicianship and rock-solid technique, proving to have one of the most homogeneous mezzos in this repertoire. However, the kind of vocal upfront impact required by Verdian writing is incompatible to her vocalisation and the results were a bit dull. Her two arias were too calculated to produce the right effect, although in terms of stage presence she often overshadowed Radvanosky’s more generalized acting.

Richard Margison’s tenor is natural and quite pleasant, but he seemed to be short of top notes that evening, having to resort to some forcing and squeezing to get up there. His looks were not one would call physique du rôle, but his unexaggeration is more than welcome. As to Dwayne Croft, his baritone developed to be smoother and darker than it used to be and he sang with consistent legato throughout. It is a pity that his “macho” acting is so unintentionally comic that it made me think of Monthy Python movies. Although Ferruccio Furlanetto’s voice is not as rounded and smooth as it used to be in Karajan’s days, he is still a commanding Filippo, offering crusty delivery of the text and producing consistently firm tone. His sensitive rendition of his great aria is still exemplary in its dramatic accuracy. As for Paata Burchuladze’s Inquisitore, yes, it is a very powerful voice, but quite wobbly and his Italian is incomprehensible. Finally, Vitalij Kowaljow, taking the role of the friar, is a name to keep and Olga Makarina has the right pearly tone for the Voice from Heaven.

Read Full Post »