Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Wagner’s Die Walküre’

As far as I could understand, the Kanagawa Art Foundation has established a partnership with the Nikikai Opera Company that has resulted co-productions with Biwako Hall (in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture) of operatic performances since 6 years ago. For Richard Wagner’s 200 anniversary a new (at least, this is what I’ve understood) production of Wagner’s Die Walküre with international guest soloists has been featured.

The name of Belgian director Joël Louwers does not ring a bell with me. If I have in mind what I saw today, I would have remembered. Although Tina Turner sings “We don’t need another hero”, Wotan begs to differ by singing “Not tut ein Held…”. Why then the Mad Max aesthetics (in a high school musical production standard) have been chosen? Considering the prevailing cluelessness (there is an interview translated to Japanese in the program that might provide something that should stand in as an explanation, but I am unfortunately unable to read it), I would rather not hear the answer to that question. First, there is some serious misunderstanding going on here. For instance, the Todverkündung scene. Sieglinde is supposed to be asleep then – and this is no small detail. Not only do Siegmund and Brünnhilde mention the fact countless times, but also – if she is awake (as this evening) – there should be no surprise in act III on hearing the news that she is pregnant. On discovering that she is going to be a mother, she decides to go on living. So, if she had known it in act II, her whole attitude in act III would seem pointless. This is no isolated example of poor decision. For instance, the magic fire music is here background to Siegmund crashing a family dinner party (Wotan, Fricka and the valkyries…) in the Walhalla. Also, the staging itself is exotically conceived – in less than 5 minutes, curtains go up and down many times to show some tautological flashbacks (Wotan by the ash tree, the young Sieglinde surrounded by Hunding and his gang…) or some truly “illuminating” titles (“The Punishment”, “The Flight” etc). The director seems to hate the possibility of having characters on stage when not singing; as a result, whenever Wagner has an orchestral passage, short as it may be, there would come the curtains and flashbacks and/or titles. And Fricka – in this staging, we get to see Fricka all the time.  She is so ubiquitous here that she has to be ironic when she says “Wo in den Bergen du dich birgst, der Gattin Blick zu entgehn”. Although there is some (misguided) insight here, the fact is that the Personenregie is also very superficial – everybody weeps when they are sad (Wotan included), Siegmund behaves as if he had some mental disorder, whirling Sieglinde ballroom-dance-style in every possible occasion. All that involved complex set changes – and this operation must be expensive. It is sad to see so much money spent that way, when something simpler, truer and deeper could have been achieved with lower costs (and more expertise).

Conductor Ryusuke Numajiri has built his career in his native Japan and in Germany (it seems he conducted Don Giovanni at the Komische Oper in Berlin, but I have missed that). For this performance, he had the joint efforts of the Kanagawa Philharmonic Orchestra and the Japan Century Symphony Orchestra in the pit. The prospects had not seemed encouraging, but Numajiri proved to be the right man for the task. The word “kapellmeisterlich” comes to my mind in the positive sense of someone who has built an orchestral sound (rather than profiting from an orchestral culture of a world-class team) within the limits and possibilities of his musicians. Also his approach to this music does not seem to stem from any established tradition, but rather from studying the score in its face value. The results were fortunately quite refreshing, if not thrilling, overwhelming or truly moving. First, the conductor made a virtue of his orchestra’s bright but recessed sound, achieving a comfortable balance for his singers in the context of an orchestral sound that was not truly substantial or full but that retained enough timbre nonetheless. Second, he gave his musicians time to produce the necessary effects within the minimal levels of quality. In other words, tempi were unrushed but not ponderous, phrasing was comfortable, musically clear even if not terribly expressive. Third, he let the music speak for itself and you might be surprised of how eloquent it can be – even with less than optimal forces – when there is not a conductor trying to force his personality into it. Of course, when a conductor has a striking personality and great talent, it can be even more eloquent. But how often does that really happens?!

Since I saw Yuka Hashizume’s Kundry last year, I’ve been eager to see her again – especially in Wagner. She is an extremely talented singer who deserved an international career. If her Sieglinde was not striking as I had imagined, it was still far superior to many singers I’ve seen in this role. Her fruity soprano has a unique blend of warmth and cutting edge, her lower register not only is extremely comfortable but also seamlessly connected into her perfectly homogeneous soprano. She is never less than stylish and utterly musicianly, scales down to beautiful mezza voce whenever this is necessary and has reserves of power for the key dramatic moments. This evening her interpretation was rather generalized and she missed the tingling effect in act III – but I would rather blame the circumstances. I was not truly excited about the opportunity of hearing Eva Johansson as Brünnhilde at this stage of her career, but I have to say that she was in exceptionally good voice this afternoon. She still has her sharp/emphatic/fluttery moments, but she proved to be far more disciplined that I could have imagined and sang with the kind of firmness and fullness I thought she had left behind long ago. There was little finesse and variety in her singing, and yet she could find a softer quality for her long scene with Wotan in act III. In comparison, Etsuko Kanoh’s Fricka was far more interesting in her subtle but sure word pointing and dramatic instincts, even if the role is heavy for her voice and her low register now lacks space and color.

This evening’s Siegmund was Tetsuya Mochizuki, a singer I have previously heard as Tamino (a performance that left me no good memories) in the New National Theatre. He is far more comfortable in Wagner – he knows the style, the Italianate touch is not unwelcome, the voice has an appealing old-style fast-vibratoish quality when not tested in dramatic passages (when it acquires a Spiteltenorisch edge) and he can phrase with elegance when he finds it necessary. Yet he is overardorous and hams as his life depended on it. He lost some steam in act II too. I’ve seen Greer Grimsley sing Wotan both in Berlin and in New York. In a good day, he can be a very powerful Wotan. And today was one of these days – he was the aural image of vocal health, singing with unfailingly firm and dark tone throughout. In the closing scene, I remember more subtlety and shading in Berlin, but I guess he just couldn’t resist to pour voluminous and rich sounds in the hall as he could do today. Last but not least, Koji Yamashita was very well cast as Hunding. The team of valkyries too deserve praises – especially the fearless Miyuki Hibino as Helmwige.

Read Full Post »

As part of the New Japan Philharmonic’s celebration of the Wagner jubilee, conductor in residence Ingo Metzmacher programmed a concert performance of Die Walküre’s Act 1, with soloists from the Deutsche Oper Berlin, preceded by R. Strauss’s tone poem Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Metzmacher is famous for his fondness for bold, think orchestral playing (as I could hear in his concerts during his tenure at the DSO in Berlin) and, under his baton, the NJP displayed a large – properly late-Romantic – sound, rich in warm strings. In moments where the texture becomes more complex, such as the Der Genesende episode, the sound picture could get a bit slacker, especially when one has in mind Karl Böhm’s 1958 recording with the Berliner Philharmoniker, but clarity was almost always there. At the Tanzlied episode, the German conductor proved to be a bit heavy-footed, making for a rather clumsy waltz. At this point, his musicians seemed to have lost some steam too.

For the Walküre, the orchestra showed an entirely different sound, brighter and lighter. Looking at the list of soloists, one would have a deceptive first impression of a Karajanesque performance. Rather than Karajan’s flexible, luxuriant beat, Metzmacher offered a surprisingly a tempo approach, very economic with lingering breathing pauses, highlighting the Hauptstimme, which shifted from singers to orchestra in a commendably natural and consequent manner. The violins kept a cantabile quality throughout, even in fast passagework, which made me often think of Hans Tietjen’s 1938 Bayreuth recording. Later on, Metzmacher would prove to be suppler than I imagined, offering Sieglinde a Du bist der Lenz slower and more lyrical than usual and a truly climactic accelerando in the closing bars of the act. Although the approach paid off in its unusual structural coherence, musical soundness and chamber-music-like sonorities, the effect was unfortunately short in drama and excitement.

In 1938, Tietjen too chose light voices – in Maria Müller and Franz Völker – for his Wälsungen, but those were legendary singers of exceptional resources and technical finish. That was not the case this evening – and I have the impression that soloists who could have indeed pierced through the orchestral would have allowed the conductor more leeway to infuse energy in his otherwise musically persuasive approach. In the case of his Sieglinde, the final balance was surprisingly positive. Although Michaela Kaune’s high register is unfocused and colorless, she sang with unfailing theatrical instincts, a golden-toned medium register and very efficient low notes, exemplary diction, imagination and – in the more jugendlich than dramatisch moments – an elegant, almost Mozartian purity of line. She is not a Sieglinde by nature (act III would probably be very dangerous to her vocal health), but she “sold” me her version of Sieglinde this afternoon. On the other hand, Will Hartmann had to work hard for his money. The tone does have a young-Siegfried-Jerusalem quality, but the slancio, the resistance and the breath are not truly there. The result was often underpowered and wooden (the Wälse! sustained high g flat and high g particularly problematic). He started off with a refreshing lyricism, but when he got to Winterstürme, he was obviously too tired to make something of it. Last but not least, Liang Li was an efficient dark-toned Hunding.

Read Full Post »

The Kirishima International Musical Festival was founded in 1980 by initiative of the late German violinist Gerhard Brosse (concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra until 1975) to help young Japanese musicians who could not travel abroad to have the experience of learning from first-rate musicians. There is a series of concerts related to the students and the musicians responsible for the masterclasses – the orchestra items turning around the Festival orchestra, which involves musicians from orchestras such as the Staatskapelle Berlin, the Deutsche Oper,  the Concertgebouw and the Metropolitan Opera, but mainly from Japanese orchestras: New Japan Philharmonic, Osaka Philharmonic, NHK Symphony Orchestra, Yomiuri Nippon Orchestra etc.

Because of the Wagner Jubilee, this year concert’s main item was Die Walküre’s 1st Act, preceded by Beethoven’s Symphony no. 1. The concert was repeated in a sold-out evening in the Tokyo Opera City, probably the less glamorous Walküre in concert version in Tokyo this year. However, the famous conductors who’ll be here next month will have to run for their money if they want to match this one.

First of all, I was truly surprised by the Festival orchestra. In the Beethoven symphony, conductor Tatsuya Shimono opted for a daring Böhm-meets-Barenboim approach, demanding both clarity and fulness of sound from his orchestra in very reasonable tempi made to seem more energetic by incisive accents and precise beat. The orchestra responded with unusual animation for a Japanese phalanx. The sound was rich, bright and flexible, with exemplary contribution from brass and violins.

However, Maestro Shimono proved to be a most commendable Wagnerian after the intermission. To understand this concert, a long considerations about the soloists (from the Mariinsky Theater) must be made. First of all, the reason why I’ve ended up in this concert is related to the tenor. A very good friend (deceased a while ago) had the habit of saying, after he had seen the video of Boris Godunov from the Kirov Theatre, that Alexei Steblianko should consider a Wagnerian career. When I saw Mr. Steblianko’s name on the program, I thought I owed Fernando to check if his theory was right. Actually, at 63, it is rather late for this Russian tenor to become a Wagnerian – and one can hear that. Not in his voice – which is pretty good shape – but by the fact that he has very little experience in this repertoire. His German is heavily accented, what he sings is not always what Wagner wrote, he indulges in parlando, falsetto and scooping effects some Russian tenors are fond of and he has very poor discipline with breath support. But his voice was made for Wagner. His tenor is naturally voluminous, the low register is impressively focused and natural and, when he properly supports his high high notes, they sound beefy and dark in a curiously non-baritonal way. Although he was not truly comfortable in SIegmund’s show-off moments (Wälse! Wälse! and Nothung! Nothung! particularly), one would often be caught in surprise with some uniquely big and powerful notes.

Yekaterina Shimanovitch, on the other hand, has decent German, knows Wagnerian style and blasts some awesome firm and huge top notes that one probably could hear out in Seoul. Her fruity soprano has a touch of Anna-Tomowa-Sintow mid-range, but lacks space in the bottom. She too has a naturally big voice and can handle conversational passage without any effort – only to knock you out in the first dramatic high note when you least expect. She is not expressive or insightful in any particular way, but she is far from unsubtle. Well, she had a bad start, unintentionally singing her first lines in higher pitches than in the score, but after having found the right notes, she proved to be the best soloist this evening. Bass Pavel Shmulevitch has a tipically Russian voice – sometimes verging on throatiness – and knows his text better than the higher-voiced singers this evening. However, he is not spontaneous in his enunciation.

As you can see, the conductor had to handle a tenor who did not really know his part, a soprano who had to calm down after starting on the wrong foot and a bass who slowed down the pace whenever he sang. Does that sounds promising to you? Well, I was fearing for the worst, but then I realized that Shimono had everything under complete control. He led his orchestra, cued his singers incessantly, infused energy in the proceedings and offered Wagner as full-toned and classically balanced as his Beethoven. He and his musicians – his spalla has a vast experience in this opera with Daniel Barenboim and one could see his incentive for his fellow violinists to go beyond safety net – offered absolute transparency. Even in the difficult passagework in the violins after Winterstürme until the end of the act, one could perfectly hear everything as one sometimes doesn’t with famous orchestras. But the best of all, was the fact that the conductor knew he had some big voices that could really stand an orchestral fortissimo. I had goosebumps in Du bist der Lenz – the hall exploding with orchestral sound under Shimanovich’s steely, bright top notes. Some may say I had low expectations – hence the good surprise. Maybe that’s right, but the fact is – all drawbacks considered, I really had fun this evening.

Read Full Post »

My story with Guy Cassiers’s production of Wagner’s Die Walküre is everything but uneventful: it had a very bumpy start in Milan (with one important compensation); than it became something truly impressive in its first season in Berlin, only to become something notably less spectacular one year later. In the fourth chapter of our chronicle, a trend seems to be confirmed – this evening’s performance proved to be even less compelling than last year. From the opening bars, one could see that the energy of previous years could not be reproduced this evening. Although the conductor could elicit some excitement from his musicians now and then, a sense of structure could not be produced, pace seemed to sag, the orchestral sound tended to be heavy and brassy and occasionally messy (the Walkürenritt was downright bad, a disappointing group of valkyries and the orchestra really poorly integrated). There were moments when the performance seemed to be on, but in a very incoherent way.  Whenever Sieglinde and Siegmund entered in Tristan-esque mood, Barenboim would press the brake predal and opt for a dense string-based sound and heavily expressive style that maybe could have build into a Furtwänglerian experience if this could be sustained for more than two minutes.

His Sieglinde seemed to suffer from the same problem. In the first act, Waltraud Meier seemed out of sorts – low notes left to imagination, faulty legato, approximative pitch and very tense high notes. Later her voice would improve and produce some edgy but powerful dramatic high notes. She seemed particularly adept when she got a moment of Innigkeit and chromaticism. Then she would remind us of her younger self, offering sensuous and exquisite turn of phrases, with beautiful hushed moments.. As much of everything else in her performance, these moments too seemed calculated. There was no spontaneity in this Sieglinde, who behaved rather as if the Feldmarschallin had been kidnapped and held hostage by Hunding. That said, one cannot cease to wonder of how intelligent and perceptive her scenario is.  For example, the way she sang So lass mich dich heißen, wie ich dich liebe: Siegmund – so nenn’ich dich convinced me that all other singers did not truly get what Sieglinde meant there. There is a lot to be learned from a performance with so many instances of superior understanding of the text like this, even if the results were undeniably vocally flawed.

I have seen Irene Théorin produce more exuberant top notes than this evening, but otherwise I have particularly enjoyed what she has done today. First of all, her voice was overall warmer – especially in the middle register – and rounder this evening than what I can remember. Although she usually finds no trouble in singing softer dynamics, today her mezza voce was particularly exquisite and effortless. She reserved her truly scintillating acuti for key moments and, as a result, her Brünnhilde sounded particularly youthful and touching. And she deals with act III as few other singers – it is truly an emotional journey, done with a very wide-ranging tonal palette and artistic generosity. If I sound mean by saying that Ekaterina Gubanova too seemed not to be in her absolutely best day, the explanation is that she was even richer-toned and more forceful last year.

Christopher Ventris is a great improvement in terms of casting in this production. He is the lest hammy Siegmund here since 2010 to start with. His is not a memorable voice, but one used with fine technique and good taste. His lyric approach to the role pays off in moments like Winterstürme and he can produce some powerful notes now and then. There are some underwhelming moments and some instances of indifferent delivery of the text, but I cannot help finding his singing refreshing in comparison to his competition both in the Schiller Theater and at La Scala. René Pape still struggles with the high tessitura, but he was in a better day this evening than last year. Although most of his upwards excursions were constricted or tense, his voice is naturally big and noble enough to offset this most of the time. In any case, he sails through the role in grand style, tackling Wotan’s act II big monologue with crystal-clear diction, sensitive delivery of the text and tonal variety. As for Mikhail Petrenko (Hunding), his bass was often poorly focused and sometimes hooty. In order to make for that, he often “acted with the voice” in a distracting manner.

Read Full Post »

Although Die Walküre is the most human-scale work in the tetralogy, it is strange how elusive it is to stage directors, who seem to be more comfortable among the gods: how often does one sees how lonely and unhappy Sieglinde is, how vulnerable and desperate (and therefore capable of some very dangerous deeds) Siegmund is, how the fact that they are siblings in a family “hated by everyone” (Hunding’s words) makes them a couple? Certainly not this evening. Andreas Kriegenburg considers that Die Walküre is crossed by two axes – war/love, male/female – the impossibility of love in a world of violence makes it possible for an impossible love to exist. Well, this is a clever thing to say – but Kriegenburg was hired to stage and not to say clever things. In his staging, Sieglinde lives in some sort of female community (plus Hunding) that collects dead men’s bodies to be buried. They don’t have to go very far to find them – most of them are hanging from the ash-tree just above the table where they eat (this does not seem to bother them). There are some girls with lanterns on the palms of their hands who work as some sort of collective searchlight or sometimes as some sort of kurogo “invisible” stage-hands. From the point-of-view of the audience, it basically looks as if Sieglinde had 20 servants that make all the hard work while she makes sad expression for a Siegmund on the other side of the stage. Later their purpose would be something like a human-screen for Sieglinde and Siegmund’s love-making. Apparently, two is company and 22 is voyeurism.

If act II is a bit all over the place, at least it has some interesting ideas. Wotan’s “new position in the world” means that he no longer has time for being a warrior and has to perform executive duties. The set shows an audience hall more or less 1940’s in style with a large Romantic painting showing a forest scene on the rear wall. There is a desk too. Fricka, some sort of Jackie O-like first lady in a party gown, and Wotan do not need armchairs, they have each 10 waiters who double as furniture when they need to sit down. These godly couple likes to break glasses with their own hands during their discussions, but none of the 20 servants care to clean anything. Kriegenburg loves his stage machinery, and walls and ceiling go back and forth, up and down throughout. While Wotan is about to end his scene with Brünnhilde, lots of war survivors appear on stage, but with an impatient sign of his hand, they drop dead. The rest of the act takes place among the dead bodies and extensive usage of stage lift.

I had written that Zenta Haerter’s choreographies were effective in Das Rheingold. Not this evening, I’m afraid. Wagner’s music for act III had to wait for more or less 8 minutes while 14 girls in nightgowns played horsy. Yes, we’d got it on the first 30 seconds “ride of the valkyries – the girls are the horses”, but then the audience lost its patience around the fifth minute and started to boo and shout angrily. Then the act began – the horse girls went somewhere upstage, while the valkyries had long leather reins to play with. After heavy usage of stage lift, Brünnhilde and Wotan are left alone. In the end, she is raised on a round platform while the no-longer-horse girls come with some sort of flammable cable and gather around Brünnhilde. Yes, Siegfried wouldn’t be afraid of that – probably of the girls (as you remember – he had never seen any girl before getting to Brünnhilde’s rock) – so image of fire is projected everywhere to make it more formidable. Final curtain.

Does this sound uneventful? Now think of it with Kent Nagano’s conducting on the background. “On the background” is an apt description of the musical performance. Regardless of tempo, this conductor’s more evident feature is flaccid accent. When the music requires a more considerate tempo, as in the final scene of act I, the warmth of the Bavarian State Orchestra’s strings and the fact that singers could whisper over the recessed orchestral sound made for some sense of Innigkeit. Under the baton of other conductor, one could go for chamber-music like transparency, but although one could always hear woodwind, the articulation was so lazy, the structural coherence left to imagination, that the results couldn’t help being dyspeptic. When energy was required, you got drums and brass louder than the rest of the orchestra but without much consequence. Even then, the impression was of flabbiness – one felt like throwing a box of Viagra in the orchestral pit.

Even if Anja Kampe seemed to be in more flexible voice both times I saw her in Berlin (in a smaller hall, truth be said), she is still a radiant, ideally cast Sieglinde. I felt sorry for her in her farewell to Brünnhilde – she was about to launch the “redemption”-motive and she took three seconds to realize that she was alone there, the orchestra was still playing Debussy. It felt uncomfortable trying to carry all the hope of the world alone. Katarina Dalayman has everything to be an ideal Brünnhilde – the voice is big, warm and full and she phrases with unusual elegance, but the high notes do not come naturally to her. Or rather: she can hit some impressive percutant acuti provided they do not come too close to each other. When they do (as in the ho-jo-to-ho’s), she gets tired dangerously fast. In order to prevent that, she shortens note values without much ado.  It seems that she took the decision of saving steam in act II, but then the tenor and the conductor made the Todverkündung so uninteresting that she suddenly decided to plug in and save not only Siegmund but the whole scene (too late unfortunately). I have the clear impression that Sophie Koch has carefully listened to Christa Ludwig’s recording for Georg Solti – and right she did, for it is with the masters that one is supposed to learn. Her voice, of course, is lighter than the legendary German mezzo soprano’s, but she is a cunning singer and made it work in her voice – actually, Nagano could learn from her how to produce impact in restricted dynamics.

When Sieglinde says that the echo of her own voice sounds similar to Siegmund’s, this generally sounds as something only a Romantic character would say. Well, this evening, it sounded less impossible than usual, for I cannot think of a tenor as light in tone as Klaus Florian Vogt in the part of Siegmund. The low tessitura generally involves a baritonal voice in the role – and hearing a voice far from virile in it was a puzzling experience for me. Although his tenor is definitely not heroic, it is curious how hearable it is. When the tessitura was congenial, such as in Winterstürme, this brought about a fresh lyricism to the role – but the role requires more than that. In exposed heroic moments, such as the Wälse sustained notes, he sounded nasal and strained and you could hear that (his voice is very projecting and there was very little orchestral sound to speak of). The Todverkündung scene simply did not work – he cannot properly support low notes, some of them were barely sung, he often seemed to be speaking and not singing the text and he produced far more breathing pauses than any other  Siegmund I have ever seen. As usual, he was hugely applauded – so I guess that James King must have done everything wrongly in his performances.

When describing a particular singer, a friend of mine said, “her voice was more vertical than horizontal, if you can get my meaning”. These words describe Thomas J. Meyer’s voice very aptly. It is a truly forceful voice, but not really voluminous. When he has to operate on the lower end of his range, the sound is rather juiceless and unflowing. On the other hand, when the phrase is congenial, he can produce some big top notes. In heroic moments, he is often harsh of tone and pushes more often than he should – but he has a big personality and makes it part of a bully-approach to the role. And he pulls it out somehow. It is surprising that he could soften his tone for the closing scene and find a tonal palette that he could not count with in his long act II narration, where he successfully compensated by emphasis and clear declamation. I cannot help thinking that he is doing too much too soon – John Tomlinson made many Handel and Mozart recordings before tackling Wagner. James Morris, for example, had his share of Rossinis and Mozarts too – and, differently from Mayer, sang Banquo and not the title role in Macbeth (if you think that Morris’s Wotan had easier and more spacious high notes than Mayer’s, this seems something to be taken in consideration). Ain Anger was a very good Hunding, dark-toned, comfortable with the low notes and really menacing. Finally, I thought that the Bavarian State Opera could find a more efficient team of valkyries. Something was really wrong this

Read Full Post »

Maybe because im mildem Lichte leuchtet der Lenz, the Deutsche Oper thought that two isolated performances of Wagner’s Die Walküre would be a nice springtime offering, although Götz Friedrich’s staging is rather in the winter of its existence. Martina Serafin was originally listed as Sieglinde, but was replaced by Heidi Melton, the Deutsche Oper’s official Gutrune. The American soprano has sung the role before in San Francisco, in Runnicles’ Grand Teton Festival and in a concert in Edimburgh- and had the opportunity to “visit” this production as Helmwige. Sieglinde is a tricky role and three times is hardly a lifetime – and the good news are that what lies ahead promises to be very exciting. This evening, there were many exciting moments – but they still need to develop into a whole, coherent performance. There are uncertain moments, some miscalculations (for instance, sometimes she unnecessarily feels that she has to give more and ends on pushing a bit) and some nervousness when soft dynamics are required. That said, for someone relatively new in the role, what she has offered is more than praiseworthy. First, her jugendlich dramatisch soprano is extremely pleasant on the ear, well-focused and rich in its lower reaches. Second, she is an elegant, musicianly singer. Third, she has a radiant stage presence and proved to be a particularly alert and engaged actress. Moreover, she could find the right note of vulnerability in her Sieglinde – and her expression of gratitude to Brünnhilde in act III was powerfully, richly and most sensitively sung.

Catherine Foster’s Brünnhilde has one of those lean, cold-toned voices that flash high notes without much effort à la Catherina Ligendza. Although it is refreshing to see that she really does not find it exhausting to sing this difficult role – and she can be surprising adept in key moments, especially the long crescendo in ihm innig vertraut -trotzt’ ich deinem Gebot – one has the feeling that there are still harmonics waiting to be used in her voice. Her middle register sometimes fails to pierce, there is some sharpness going on and her projection is sometimes unidirectional (in the sense that when she is not singing in your direction, you hear noticeably less). She has an interesting approach to her role – although she is very convincingly tomboyish, Brünnhilde’s more tender side is always at a hand’s reach. And she can shift into these two keys very precisely and effectively.

Daniela Sindram’s voice is still on the light side for Fricka, but her performance is a lesson of how to produce impact through inflection, rhythmic propulsion and clear attack. She is a remarkably intelligent singer, who knows every little nuance in her scene. No wonder she was so warmly applauded.

Torsten Kerl has a very likeable personality and voice – although neither are truly Siegmund material, one still feels inclined to like him. For instance, his Siegmund is far more buoyant and boyish than what one usually sees, but the perkiness is often overdone and ultimately looks hammy. As for the voice, it is round, spontaneous, very keen on cantabile and the low notes are usually rich – and yet a couple of sizes smaller than what one needs to ride a Wagnerian orchestra. He is also a bit free with notes – and, although he was not alone in what regards false entries, he had probably the largest share this evening. Last time, I wrote that Greer Grimsley’s quality as Wotan was basically his big voice. This evening, I would say that he offered really more than that. First of all, even if there still are rough edges, this evening he was in good voice, far firmer than last year. There are more sensitive, more specific, nobler-toned Wotans – but Grimsley is never less than committed and is particularly effective when Wotan looses his temper. That said, he was surprisingly self-contained and illustrative in his long act-II narration. Only in Wotan’s last scene, one felt that he could relax a bit more. But all in all, a raw, powerful performance. Attila Jun is a dark-voiced, forceful Hunding – he is sometimes unintentionally funny on stage and, if he worked on that, he could offer an even more compelling performance.

I still haven’t seen a really satisfying Walküre from Donald Runnicles in the Deutsche Oper – and this evening was no exception. I have noticed that I often write that a performance of Die Walküre often takes off from act II on, and, yes, it does make sense: it is the more “romantic” act and one wants softer tonal quality, a more flexible tempo, a bit more Innigkeit, but at the same time, this is still a big echt Wagnerian orchestra. If the conductor and his orchestra cannot achieve this lightness without loosing focus (both in the sense of clean articulation and of a distinctive tonal quality), then the sound picture becomes often matte and shapeless – as this evening. If act II worked better, it is because the dark, weighty sound are more appropriate for the prevailing gloom. But still, at some moments, one could feel how long act II is. I know, most people are sick of the Walkürenritt – not me, I always like it as if it were the first time. This evening, it started most commendably – absolute structural clarity until the valkyries started to sing. Not only the conductor could not find the right balance between singers and orchestra, but also the singers were not truly well adjusted between themselves. After that, the performance settled in a comfortable, often convincingly rich-toned but hardly unforgettable frame.

Read Full Post »

The Berlin Philharmonic has its name inscribed in the discography of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen under the baton of Herbert von Karajan. Although the Austrian conductor was usually associated with large orchestral sound built around a thick string section, he took the world by surprise with what his detractors called “chamber music” sonorities for his tetralogy in Salzburg (and in the studio). The casting of a “Mozartian” Sieglinde was also unexpected. In any case, the results were distinctive enough – some people cannot live without Karajan’s Die Walküre, in which the most “intimate” opera in the cycle is performed “in human scale”.

I have become used to Barenboim’s “force of nature”-approach to the Introduction to act I and Rattle’s subdued take on it puzzled me a bit. When his “Mozartian” Siegmund began to sing surrounded by the gentlest version of the Berliner Philharmonic sound, graced by Rattle’s often admirable sense of detail and tonal colouring, one could think of Karajan’s recording. But then the evening’s Sieglinde had a far more substantial voice – and one couldn’t help noticing that when she was singing, the Karajanesque smoother sounds would develop into something more traditionally “Wagnerian”. This incongruousness would rob the whole act of a backbone – there were moments, many of them effective, but they vied with each other for a concept. The orchestra proved to be impressively Protean under these circumstances – clear and flexible either in capital or small-letter.  Act II had no such ambiguities – it had the appearance, but only intermittently the spirit of a traditional Wagner performance, while act III was probably started with a caricature of a “traditional” Wagner performance in a very brassy and unsubtle Walkürenritt. Towards the closing scene, the performance would regain purpose – in spite of the increasing blunders in the brass section – in a wide-ranging account of Wotan’s farewell to Brünnhilde – the first orchestral “interlude” a breathtaking example of gradual crescendo, the second expressively hushed and unhurried. My “in a nutshell” would be “a wonderful torso”. I have the impression that the last performance, which is going to be broadcast live in the Digital Concert Hall (this evening’s could be heard live in the Radio Berlin-Brandenburg) will be more consistent.

Although our good friend Jerold doesn’t buy the idea that good singers are in constant development, I am happy to report that the invaluable Evelyn Herlitzius seems to be proving my point. Compared to her performance in the Deutsche Oper’s Ring two years ago, this evening’s Brünnhilde was a complete improvement and consistent to her last Straussian performances both in the Berlin Staatsoper and in the Salzburg Festival. Although one can see that singing at full powers is still her strong feature, she is now readier and more comfortable with holding back and producing legato and shaded dynamics when necessary – with no loss of security and sheer power in her acuti (as her daredevil ho-jo-to-ho’s showed) Sometimes she even ventured out of her comfort zone in trying softer singing in some very tricky spots. This, allied to her customary rhythmic accuracy, clear diction and complete emotional involvement, made her act III really vivid and gripping (even if one will recall other singers who have offered something more touching).

I had seen Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Sieglinde only once, in a very atypical day. This evening, in healthy voice, she showed herself rich-toned and even through the whole range, especially in unforced, big high notes that blossomed from the heart of the orchestra. Her experience in this role shows in her thorough understanding of dramatic situations and keen verbal pointing. One can see that she knows where a bit more tonal variety would make some difference, but her attempts in mezza voce were often colorless. I am not sure what to say about Lilli Paasikivi  – her middle-size mezzo achieves its goal in Wagner by means of a metallic edge (especially in its almost spoken low register) that makes it sounds curiously shrewish. As a result, her Fricka was particularly waspish.

Then there is Christian Elsner. Has there been any other Siegmund in the last decades with a discography as a Lieder singer? I am not saying that there is not a Siegmund somewhere in Christian Elsner – one can take a glimpse of it in his rich, natural low notes – but what one hears could be described as if the mind of Christoph Prégardien has been transplanted into the body of Johan Botha. When the line is lyrical and undemanding, Elsner’s voice has a boyish, reedy quality reminiscent of Siegfried Jerusalem’s in his old studio recording of Die Walküre with the Staatskapelle Dresden and Janowski, with an extra Schubertian poise. However, when things become really Wagnerian, he basically lacks the technical resources – his high register wants slancio and sounds bottled up, legato evaporates, a nasal quality creeps in and he is often covered by the orchestra.

Although Terje Stensvold is by now a veteran singer (he is 68), his voice sounds as a man’s half his age. I had never seen him before and I wonder why he isn’t more of a household name. At least among Wagnerians – he is the kind of Heldenbariton more comfortable in the baritone than in the bass end of his voice, but his sound is so focused, big and bright that you can always hear him, even in his lower range, which sometimes acquires a yawny mature-Hotter sound. He is not very specific in his declamation (what can be a problem in act II), but has very clear diction and phrasing. All in all, an impressively reliable performance in a very difficult role. Mikhail Petrenko’s Hunding is becoming a bit mannered, but it is still a dark, big voice that works very well in the Philharmonie. Although Rattle drawned his valkyries in brass, one could still catch some interesting voices there, particularly Andrea Baker and Susan Foster.

Read Full Post »

Before the Deutsche Staatsoper shows its complete Ring (made in collaboration with Milan’s La Scala) in 2013, a recapitulation of the previous two installments has been offered during the Festtage 2012. While Das Rheingold had cast changes (most notably René Pape as Wotan), Die Walküre has the same cast from last year, when I could catch the last performance, conducted at white heat by Barenboim and sung in the grand manner by almost everyone in the cast. This evening, the circumstances proved to be somewhat less exciting. After an aptly raw introduction, Barenboim took some time to switch full powers and, even when he did, one had the sensation that, instead of continuous development, one would rather see moments when things seem to connect and build up in momentum only to sag back to slimmer orchestral sound and less exciting music-making. Friday he conducted Rheingold; Saturday, Lulu; this evening, Walküre – maybe this explains his variable level of energy. In any case, when all elements actually converged – as in the Fricka/Wotan scene and especially in the Sieglinde/Brünnhilde act III scene – memories of last year came back very vividly.

In terms of casting, all women deserve high compliments this evening. Iréne Theorin displayed a particularly strong middle register this evening without any loss of power in her high notes. Some may find her voice overmetallic now and then, but her artistry is beyond minor snags. Everything about her performance is generous: her powerful voice, her keenness on tonal and dynamic variety (exquisite pianissimi throughout), her fully committed stage persona. It is hardly her fault that Anja Kampe could sometimes be even more touching – she was born to sing Sieglinde and has inscribed her name along the great exponents of this role. Ekaterina Gubanova’s Fricka has only grown in strength since last year – she offers a perfect blended of warmth and focus in her rich mezzo-soprano.

Although Simon O’Neill has received warm applause, I have to say that his singing this evening got on my nerves. If you are curious to know how Gerhard Stolze would have sounded as Siegmund, you just needed to be in the Schiller Theater today. In any case, Stolze was a better actor (and a singer of more nuance) than O’Neill, who hams as if his life depended on it. Mikhail Petrenko’s bass sounded throaty and unsupported and offered very little impact as Hunding.  As we have often discussed here, the part of Wotan is on the high side for René Pape, but – in one of these six days in the year when one’s voice is just perfect – he has no rivals in depth, nobility and musicianship. Alas, this was not one of these six days, and his high register was basically non-functional. In the second act, he struggled a lot with it and had to resort to every trick available to get away with high-lying passages. Fortunately, he excelled in rounded, rich, voluminous tones in his long recap of Rheingold, in which he used all his Lieder singer abilities. The problem remained that he still had act III to sing. The fact that he saved his voice for the closing scene would be more disturbing, if Pape had not cunningly found a dramatic excuse for that: I have never seen such a world-weary, depressed Wotan as this evening. When he sang Nicht send’ ich dich mehr aus Walhall, it sounded as if he was describing all the torments of HIS life without Brünnhilde. When he finally had to sing out, the voice was still tense and unflowing in its upper reaches, but he still could make it to the end commendably. During the curtain calls he seemed at first a bit apologetic and then legitimately touched by the audience’s recognition. I just wonder how rewarding the experience is for him – and I have to believe that his intent to expose his reputation as an immaculate singer in such a strenuous part must come from his unreserved love for Wagner music. And I respect that.

Read Full Post »

Last year, the first Ring Cycle in the Deutsche Oper clearly showed progressive improvement and accordingly the Walküre was an altogether more satisfying experience than the Rheingold. This time, the development is far more difficult to understand. First of all, the issue of orchestral sound volume is more complex this year. The cast last time was made of substantially larger voices (with one exception), what made it easier for the conductor to give freer rein to his orchestra. Before someone points out that I have been pressing the same key: even if a large orchestral sound is not essential for Wagner, it is nonetheless the safer way of producing the right effect. Herbert von Karajan, for instance, opted for chamber-like sonorities for his Salzburg Ring – and one easily realizes that the level of craftsmanship required is far above average. One needs only a top-tier orchestra exhaustively rehearsed to draw on tonal colouring and accent. And some still find it a bit undramatic. Is it fair to expect that every Wagner performance in the theatre to be thrilling? Maybe not – but a Ring Cycle is supposed to be a special occasion and, if I have to be honest about this evening’s performance, the adjective is “boring”. I was afraid to use this word, but then a singer friend who was there agreed sotto voce  “I was so afraid to call it boring, but that is what it was”. So, we both encouraged each other to express our feelings and the result is that I am writing it here. From the first bureaucratic bars, one could know what was coming. Not the last word in clarity, no tingle factor out of momentous orchestral sound, only occasional sense of forward movement: wherever you ran to, disappointment was waiting. Act II felt like as long as Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (the most uninteresting Todesverkündung scene ever shown to an audience included). After a messy Walkürenritt, only halfway act III seemed to catch some fire – the Deutsche Oper’s shining feature as a Wagnerian orchestra, its almost unique blend of brass and string sounds, was finally conjured, some emotion was put into the proceedings and, with the big-voiced singer in the evening alone on stage, Musikdrama made a fast but somewhat late appearance.

Jennifer Wilson seems to be one of those singers cursed with an exceptional vocal nature. God has really wanted her to be a dramatic soprano, but she has received very little help from her teachers. Basically, I don’t really think that the way she sings now is everything she can do. It is all right a big, bright, easy voice, but imperfectly supported. To start with, I know that the ho-jo-to-ho’s are assignments from hell, but she was audibly breathless in her first appearance and breathless she often was, chopping phrases more often than I am used to hear. Problematic breath support has many consequences – faulty legato, instances of dubious pitch, tonal meagerness, patches of reduced audibility (especially middle and low register), hootiness, lack of finish in long notes. This evening, there were examples of all that. Sometimes, seeing that an exposed high note would come, an extra effort would be made and a legitimate rich, full, vibrant note would be produced and one could see how exciting everything could be.  It is clear that she has the right instincts but, if she was not in a very bad day, she should look into her technique, for her voice is really worth while the effort.

Petra Maria Schnitzer is almost the perfect opposite of her Brünnhilde: she is a lyric soprano with solid schooling who knows all the tricks to deal with dramatic roles without damaging her voice. Although she was not in any way exceptional , she was still a touching Sieglinde. Her voice is not very distinctive, but it is pleasant, round and healthily produced. As a result, it has a youthful appeal that, aided by unfailing sense of style and a very likable personality, puts you on her side. Predictably, the lower end of the tessitura proved to be more challenging than the high notes – and probably only in Der Männer Sippe one could feel some discomfort. Daniela Sindram is the Octavian/Komponist kind of mezzo and not someone would expect to find as Fricka. She knows that she is no Christa Ludwig and fortunately did not try to be that. With her focused, round mezzo she produced an elegant performance with some forceful high notes and a discrete use of chest register to pierce through in her low notes. She is also a very intelligent and charismatic singer. It is always a pleasure to see and hear her – even in a role not really meant for her.

Yes, Robert Dean Smith has sung Tristan – and, as our good friend Cavalier has reminded me – even at the Met – but Siegmund has a very special kind of difficulty. He is not the first lighter-toned singer in this role – Jonas Kaufmann at the Met is another example – and the comparison with Kaufmann is interesting. Vocally speaking, I find the JK basically more “interesting” than RDS – the voice is more immediately recognisable, the high notes are more incisive and he is more dramatically connected. But Dean Smith has one great advantage – he is more experienced and only steps on firm soil. His Siegmund was beautifully sung in flowing legato and – this is the first time I use Leontyne Price’s little concept for a singer in Wagnerian repertoire – joie de chant: one can feel he is enjoying himself there and, to keep quoting Price, if he were not, neither would we. I’ve seen that many members of the audience were truly satisfied with his performance – I was to a certain point. Beautiful as it was, it lacked some thrill, and the lack of volume was only part of it.

Greer Grimsley’s curdled and slightly unwieldy bass-baritone is not very seductive – and his emphatic and often rough approach to phrasing and unclear vowels don’t make it more appealing, but – and this evening this is a big “but” – he has a voice of truly Wagnerian proportions. When I was ready not to like him, I noticed that, whenever he was singing, the maestro could really relax and let his orchestra hit home. Then I remembered how uneventful last year’s otherwise more pleasant-toned Wotan had been and Grimsley’s performance began to have some interest. When he proved capable of some nuance in the closing scene, I’ve decided to consider him an asset in this performance. Finally, Reinhard Hagen was, as always, a most reliable Hagen.

Read Full Post »

Although I have already seen live transmissions from the Met of productions I had actually seen live, I don’t remember having ever watched one so close after seeing it there at the Met before this evening. The opening night, as reported below was eventful to say the least – Kaufmann was nervous, Westbroek was in very poor voice and nervous (or ill, as officially announced), Voigt had an accident with “the machine” in the day she decided to sing Brünnhilde for the very first time… Of course, in the last performance of the run most of this initial problems have been dealt with and my impression is that the audience this evening had a far better show than I had last month. I am not only sure if those who saw only the transmission really got a faithful idea of what happened live.

To start with, the way microphones have recorded it all voices sound more or less the same size. And this is somehow unfair to Stephanie Blythe and Hans-Peter König, for the volume and power of those voices were very much an important part of the thrill of their singing. Today in the movie theatre Kaufmann sounded as loud as Blythe – while my recollection is that even the ailing Westbroek was substantially louder than him. In any case, although Siegmund still sounds a bit low for him, free from the pressure of a role debut, he sang more spontaneously today and far more smoothly in act I. As for Westbroek, will it sound mean if I say that I preferred Margaret Jane Wray’s 3rd act? She is a good, solid singer – but considering that she is not a dramatic soprano and that, as a lyric soprano, she lacks flexibility and dynamic variety, I wonder what kinds of roles she intends to sing in the future. Her Elisabeth at the Covent Garden was more about vigor than subtlety.

In my original post, I have already praised Bryn Terfel’s detailed interpretation, but during the run it has developed into something sharper and even more perceptive. Although I can think of a couple of richer-voiced Wotans these days, none of them really offer something as complex and so revelatory in terms of comprehension of the text. I still dislike Deborah Voigt’s unappealing tonal quality in the middle register, absolute lack of variety and imagination, but I must acknowledge that she too is now more comfortable than in the opening night, when she often had to brace for her high notes. That said, this evening, with the help of close up, one could feel how emotionally engaged she was in her last scene and how efficient her chemistry with Terfel is. Their father/daughter relationship was particularly palpable – and that is quite rare.

Although James Levine’s has his disturbingly slow moments (Todverkündung will probably end next week…), the orchestra – at least with the help of microphones – produced a more positive sound. I confess I found that, while the live performance mostly left me cold, the transmission had a couple of beautiful moments. On the other hand, the camerawork was fussy, we were often showed unnecessary things (Kaufmann fighting to untie his hair* or slobbering, stagehands etc), close ups in moments when a larger angle would show the scenery more advantageously etc.

* I know it is silly, but why is it not Sieglinde who unties his hair? This would make more sense while she says that he is like spring for her etc than having Siegmund worried about his hairstyle while someone says all this to him.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 40 other followers