Posts Tagged ‘Yvonne Naef’

Kwangchul Youn has established a reputation as a Wagner singer in Bayreuth and the most important opera houses around the world. He is particularly noted for his performances in the role of Gurnemanz, a role he never sang before in his native South Korea until this week. As far as I understand, one of the reasons is that this was the Korean premiere of Wagner’s last masterpiece here.

For this performances, the Korea National Opera has ordered a new production by Philippe Arlaud, a director who worked with Christian Thielemann both in Berlin and in Bayreuth. Those used to Regietheater productions on the Green Hill would probably find this staging unchallenging in its straightforwardness – I would say that it was a sensible idea to focus on telling the story to an audience who is seeing the work for the first time. Also, it is refreshing that a stylized, minimalistic approach (rather than a traditional approach in a country where this tradition means very little) has been chosen. Act I shows one tree trunk surrounded by an iceberg borrowed from Caspar David Friedrich – a symbol for a social order whose propelling energy is gone (a red glowing grail being the only warm color on stage); act II has no sets, Klingsor’s world being just make-believe; act III predictably has the decayed version of  act I. As one can see, nothing new here, but one should not underestimate the the fact that the cast showed great conviction under the coherent guidance of a director who took the pains of sharing his visions with his singers in a way that also made sense for the audience.

Saying that Lothar Zagrosek opted for comfortable tempi that made it possible for his musicians to produce adequate results would be oversimplifying it. His orchestra played with enthusiasm and was able to fill the hall with sound when this was necessary. Brass was less accident-prone than I would have imagined and strings would sound pale only in fast or soft passages. What is important is that the right gravitas has been achieved – and singers could find the necessary time to let Wagner’s text and music “speak” for itself. You might be thinking that this is no guarantee of success for act II. Indeed, a while after the exit of the flower-maidens, things tended to get a bit pointless. Orchestral passages missed denser strings – act III having a couple of problematic moments.

Although Yvonne Naef has her taut/narrow moments, her Kundry is dramatically alert, tonally varied and seductive in a Crespin-esque way. In actIII, her acting alone was effective as her singing. Christopher Ventris is less gripping, but subtle and youthful-toned. Also, he sings with unfailing technique and musicianship. Gerard Kim (Amfortas) has an interesting voice – dark with a cutting edge – and he is the kind of singer who knows how to test his limits in a positive way. Moreover, he has a very expressive face. Antonio Yang (Klingsor) too has an intense stage presence.  His dark and forceful baritone very much at home in this repertoire.

Kwangchul Youn does not need introduction in this part. He was also in superb voice and colored the text with the sure hand of a master.


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Berlioz’s Les Troyens is one of the largest-scale operas in the repertoire – it has five acts, two parts with only one large role in common, not to mention it requires a large orchestra, large-voiced soloists and grandiose settings. The change of mood between the Trojan and the Carthaginian settings is particularly tricky for conductor and stage director.

In what regards musical values, the Dutch Opera has made the right decision in inviting John Nelson. The American conductor is an experienced Berliozian who never forgets to comply with the composer’s stylized classicism and who masters the art of setting the tempo that makes the music flow while keeping the necessary grandeur. I really did not feel the four hours and twenty-five minutes as something long during this performance. It is a pity, though, that the Nederlands Philarmonisch Orkest is not entirely at ease with this music. It worked hard to achieve nimbleness – strings smeared passagework and brass were a bit quacky and imprecise. In spite of that, the maestro could produce the right atmosphere with the means available and never fall short of the theatrical demands.

Although Pierre Audi’s staging is not really memorable, it is generally successful in producing large-scale effects with a limited number of scenic elements – three transparent bridges decorated with friezes that turn into columns for Dido’s palace. His vision of Troy is more convincing that his Carthage, which features too many basic colours at once plus neon and silly coreographies by Amir Hosseinpour and Jonathan Lunn. As for the golden folding chairs, they really look cheap beyond salvation.

This was Eva-Maria Westbroek’s debut as Cassandre. The first thing I should say is that it is really refreshing to see such gimmick-free, no-tricks approach to dramatic singing. This is a voice honestly and healthily produced by the gift of nature and by means of good old solid technique. As a result, nothing sounded strained or pushed or forced. Her top notes are particularly round. She also has an intense stage presence and eschewed exaggerations. Her French is not exactly idiomatic, though, but it is not careless either. Some might have wished for more variety, but the role itself is basically emphatic – and the world of opera would be a paradise if one could overlook the impressive resources of a singer such as Westbroek in this repertoire.

When I saw Yvonne Naef as Cassandre back in 2008, I had the impression that Dido was her role – and I am not mistaken. The Swiss mezzo gave a most praiseworthy performance of that part this evening. She masters the style, enunciates the French impeccably, her mezzo has a light yet rich and penetrating sound, she is extremely musical and colours the text sensitively. She does have regal enough an attitude and worked herself up to a powerful yet dignified frenzy in Act V. Considering these important qualities, the occasional edginess is more than forgivable.

There seems to be a heroic tenor in Bryan Hymel, but his voice is placed too forwardly and too nasally to allow him true dramatic singing. Because of the nasality, his French vowels sounded indistinct and there was very little tonal allure in his voice. He does have stamina, though, and managed to balance his resources wisely to produce a forceful account of Inutiles regrets.

Jean-François Lapointe was a most satisfying Chorèbe, singing with firm voice and handling the text expressively. Considering this is a live performance and not a studio recording, minor roles were cast quite glamorously. Although Charlotte Hellekant and Alastair Miles were neither of them in splendid voice and not entirely comfortable with the language, they do have charisma. Greg Warren’s Iopas could do with a more dulcet voice, but his top notes are indeed easy and full.

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Although I cannot call myself a Berliozian (but rather the opposite of that), I couldn’ t help checking the Boston Symphony Orchestra’ s concert with the first part of Berlioz’ s gigantic rarely performed opera Les Troyens. I have to say that my first positive experience with that work involved James Levine’ s DVD from the Metropolitan Opera in spite of the exotic (if impressive) cast and seeing that he would conduct the work again tonight was the decisive element to make me buy my ticket. As in his New York performance with Jessye Norman and Tatiana Troyanos, Levine resisted the temptation of presenting too turgid a view of this pseudo-classic work.  On his hand, Les Troyens is a matter of Musikdrama, often shown in almost late-Romantic intensity – and that’ s all for the better.  In that sense, the BSO was the main feature of this concert. This orchestra’ s lush, full yet light sonorities never get in the way of soloists and chorus and also involve the necessary clarity that ensure that Berlioz’ s woodwind effects hit home as they should. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus also deserve compliments for their powerful yet disciplined contribution.

Levine has the habit of seating his orchestra in a rather exotic manner, which might be effective to balance the sound of violas with the remaining strings. However, I will never be convinced that having the soloists standing in the end of the orchestra right in front of the chorus is a reasonable idea. In the three times I could witness this arrangement, it has always been perverse to singers, who seem understandably nervous having to take pride of place in the sound picture when they are not in the front of the orchestra. Especially when you have lightweight soloists.

Taking the crucial role of Cassandra, Yvonne Naef displayed an exquisite middle-weight mezzo-soprano that makes me think of another Yvonne – Minton – although the Australian singer had a brighter edge to her sound. I am used to more incisive and intense portrayals of this role and I took some time to understand that it was not only a sensible but a sensitive idea for Naef to opt for a more feminine and vulnerable approach, since her creamy sensuous voice was a bit stretched by the more exposed top notes and tested by having to sing over a full chorus. That said, no ugly sound came out of her throat during the whole evening, not to mention that her diction is crystalline and her phrasing is musicianly and elegant.

Announced to be indisposed, Dwayne Croft still could produce a most praiseworthy performance. His dark baritone is supple enough for Berliozian phrasing and only the occasional bleached out mezza voce and also some coughing showed that this reliable singer was indeed ill. Curiously, it was Marcello Giordani who seemed not to be in his best shape. He was entirely grey-toned during the first act and regaining the brightness of his sound for the second act did not prevent the sensation of effort.

In the whole, Levine’s theatrical approach aided by the exquisite orchestral playing and the unconventional yet touching Cassandre of Yvonne Naef made me think I would gladly listen to the second part after a 20 min intermission (alas, this will be possibly only for those who – unlike me –  will be in Boston on May 4th), even if I have doubts about Giordani’ s Aeneas right when he has a lot to sing and most of all about Anne Sofie Von Otter’ s Dido, especially placed behind the orchestra. Last time I saw her, Levine was the conductor who chose to seat her like that in the Gasteig Concert Hall for Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde and I can tell you she had a bad time trying to be heard from the remote spot on stage reserved for her.

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