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Posts Tagged ‘Wagner’s Die Walküre’

My review of the Frank Castorf’s Walküre back in 2014 shows my attempt to make sense of the various and not smoothly integrated elements in his Dramaturgie. Watching it again knowing what comes next is an entirely different experience: many of the gaps left open by a messy concept are now filled by the geopolitic frame offered by the Berlin setting of both Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. The representation of the Rhinegold as oil (we have already seen it pictured as atomic energy in Harry Kupfer’s staging on the Green Hill) is revelatory in its associations between Gods, Nibelungs etc and the various alliances built around the oil business to these days. The way it is dealt with in the various installments of the Ring is irregular (especially in Götterdämmerung), but it makes particular sense in Die Walküre, even if the Sieglide/Siegmund affair seems a bit lost in it. Here too, it seems that the staging has been refined to achieve more coherence, even if it remains a bit all over the place.

Marek Janowski took a while to find his way in this evening’s performance. Act I alternated moments of great clarity with surprisingly messy passages. The final did not build up in continuous intensity, in spite of beautiful isolated passages, such as a light-footed Winterstürme aided by a well-chosen soloist. The second act showed the orchestra in greater form and, after a bumpy Fricka/Wotan scene, things settled in rich sonoroties and some urgence, something that would reach a peak in the last act, in which Wotan’s entrance was the highlight of the whole evening, a truly exciting moment of great power and amazing playing of the string section, in perfect balance with the bass.

Catherine Foster’s Brünnhilde has greatly developed since 2014. With the exception of her first scene in act III, when she sounded a bit tired and quite wayward with intonation in her high notes, she sang with naturalness and youthfulness of tone, praiseworthy lyricism, variety and elegance. Camilla Nylund’s Sieglinde was intelligently conceived and smoothly sung, but the lack of cutting edge in her soprano had her consistently on 100% and therefore rather monochrome. Nonetheless, she still found it difficult to pierce through, leaving the conductor two options: reining in the orchestra to adjust or drowning her. In her climactic act III solo, the second solution was chosen, a sensible if still a bit disappointing choice. Tanja Ariane Baumgartner’s mezzo is on the light side for the Walküre Fricka. She sounded out of sorts and was not very precise with her notes either. Christopher Ventris was a lyric, fresh-toned Siegmund, without any hint of baritonal quality in his singing. John Lundgren’s basic tonal quality is apt for the role of Wotan, even if the sound could be overly nasal and both ends of his range could sound short of overtones and a bit forced. Fortunately, he could gather his resources for the closing scene. Although the mezza voce was unfocused, he did not refrain from trying to soften his tone and reached the end of the opera in healthy voice. Georg Zeppenfeld’s Hunding was really more convincing here compared to his performance in Salzburg, where he sounded a bit well-behaved and not truly menacing. As for the Valkyries, there was some problem of intonation in an otherwise forceful and characterful group of singers.

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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.

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In its yearly Wagner offering, the Tokyo Spring Festival goes a step further in its Ring cycle conducted by Marek Janowski featuring international casts (some singers from Janowski’s Wagner series recorded live in the Philharmonie in Berlin appear here too) with two concert performances of Die Walküre. In order to add some theatrical flavor to the proceedings, video projections depicting the sets for each act are shown, although none of these images are remotely as expressive as Waltraud Meier’s face.

The German mezzo, in excellent voice this afternoon, has adapted her Sieglinde to her present lighter-voiced self, building a particularly vulnerable and touching character, especially in act III when she thanks Brünnhilde for saving her life with palpable sense of awe and fervor. Without any doubt, I would call this the best Sieglinde I’ve heard from her in recent years. It was also fortunate that Catherine Foster too was in great shape, offering here a Brünnhilde more smoothly and sensitively sung rather than either in Bayreuth or in Berlin. Elisabeth Kulman’s Fricka is a lesson in how building a dramatic performance with a lyric voice: her mezzo is ideally focused in every register; the crystal-clear diction and the rhythmic accuracy make for unfailing incisiveness; and she handles the text with imagination and intelligence. Robert Dean Smith is, as always, a light Siegmund, with ideal legato and dynamic variety, but some might miss some radiance in his high notes. Egils Silins is a vocally unproblematic yet monochromatic and not truly subtle Wotan. In Sung Sim is a powerful and dark-toned Hunding. The team of Japanese valkyries was rather irregular, especially among the lower-voiced singers.

Maestro Janowski led a forward-moving and rhythmic alert performance that responded competently to some practical problems: a fast account of Wotan’s big act II monologue to compensate for a not particularly expressive soloist, for example. He demanded everything from the NHK Symphony Orchestra, which, inspired by Rainer Küchl’s ad hoc activity as spalla, worked hard for a bright, focused sound à la Vienna Philharmonic. These musicians produced some praiseworthy passagework in the end of act I, but the strife for clarity in the Walkürenritt ultimately brought about an impression of disjointedness. At some point, one could feel a sense of exhaustion, but giving up was fortunately never an option this afternoon. This performance only confirms the NHK SO’s Wagnerian potential still to yield interesting results as this ring cycle progresses.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 lyricism. 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.

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