Posts Tagged ‘Zubin Mehta’

Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus is an operetta. It is the world’s favourite operetta – and a score so rich in niceties and invention that critics have finally decided to “promote” it to the world of opera. But that promotion had a price – nobody who listens to Parsifal or Elektra would forgive him or herself if there were nothing really deep behind the duidus and lalalas. Thus Fledermaus has unwittingly become the symbol of the decadence of bourgeoisie, of the intoxication before downfall, a sort of dance of death in 3/4 time.

I won’t appeal to anyone’s common sense to read the libretto and realize that this is just another French vaudeville with duped husbands, characters in disguise, secrets behind doors and rivers of champagne. Claiming that it is some sort of expressionistic work just because it was created in troubled times would be the same as saying that a Rock Hudson and Doris Day movie is a political statement. Of course, one could say that the absence of the world outside in these films is something to be “read”, but if you really want to read it, you should look for other kinds of movies. You just have to listen to the score – and you won’t find any dark side in it. And that’s all for the best – after all, this is an operetta and you should have a great time while listening to its three-hour duration.

Christian Pade’s new staging for the Lindenoper is not entirely guilty of the above-described crime. While he is still dying to inoculate Berg’s Lulu into the proceedings, he never lets lightness entirely go. Because of that, many bad habits are finally redeemed by the light touch. For example, Pade has rewritten the dialogues, but that seems to have been done only to accommodate the updating of the plot to the 1980’s – and in the end many faded jokes have regained a bit of their colour. Nevertheless, some laziness involved recycling some old formulas.

Act 1 is set in the Eisenstein’s tv advertisement-like kitchen – why those rich people would frequent their kitchen so often as described here is a mystery to me. Why their maid has such a designer dress also eludes explanation. But all that takes second place to some alert stage direction with funny ideas, especially in the scenes in which Alfred takes part. Act 2 starts to pose problems. Orlofsky is portrayed as a punk young man with a high-tech penthouse and friends who look like extras in a David Bowie’s videoclip. I am still wondering why he would have such middle-aged acquaintances show up in his cool party in suits and long formal dresses. Moreover, why he would be interested in Falke and Eisenstein’s almost-suburban problems when he and his friends are doing far hotter stuff is something that puzzles me. Having the David-Bowie-people streetdance to Johann Strauss’s waltzes and polkas, however, was a bad idea that finally paid up. Martin Stiefermann’s expert choreographies did not seem ridiculous or out-of-synch as this kind of stuff tends to be. In the end, they would be the best accomplished idea in the whole production. I don’t know why stage directors in Berlin find it that having the sets of act 1 upside down in act 3 so interesting – in any case, whichever interest this might have stirred has already been lost out of repetition. It’s become as ordinary as Ampelmann stores or Maredo restaurants in the German Hauptstadt.

In any case, if the idea was to be bold, a less gemütlich conductor as Zubin Mehta should have been hired. No problem with Mehta’s conducting – it would have fit a golden-staircase staging to perfection. As it was, tempi were a bit comfortable, the orchestral playing lacked excitement even if offered clarity and precision, and the attempt to recreate Viennese rubato effects seemed rather awkward.  Maybe in order to help some singers, orchestral volume was frequently kept at very low levels.

Viennese soprano Silvana Dussmann could have added a bit of authentic charm to the proceedings, but her performance was rather Prussian in its heaviness. She is an experienced Rosalinde – one could tell that by the tricks she used to disguise the fact that her voice is no longer flexible enough for the role. Although the basic tonal quality is pleasant, the sound has become too metallic and/or harsh, her low register does not pierce into the auditorium, pitch is a bit uncertain and her insistence to sing in alts was  deafening rather than impressive. Her pairing with Christine Schäfer’s pale-toned Adèle was ill-advised. This German soprano has become a favourite with many of us with her intelligent performances and uniquely bright and smoky soprano, but I believe it is time for an engine check in her singing. Her whole performance was so erratic that I feared she would not reach the end of the evening. She could not honestly handle fioriture, fast staccato passages, low notes, legato or even cut through the orchestra. She has been singing some heavy roles for her voice – and that seldom has a happy ending. Stella Grigorian offered a decent Orlofsky, but small-scaled and lost a bit around the passaggio.

The men would offer more consistent performances. Stephan Rügamer’s voice is not mellifluous as what one uses to hear from operetta tenors, but he sings with confidence and sense of style. And his acting was so superlative that one would forgive him anything. Martin Gantner’s high-lying nasal-toned baritone works really well for Eisenstein. This is the best I have ever heard from him – he sang with unforced projection, fearless approach to high notes (he took all the high options) and sense of humour. Jochen Schmeckenbecher also seemed to be having the time of his life, and his solid bass is in very good shape. Only Roman Trekel disappointed as Frank – his singing was effortful and unsubtle throughout. Michael Maertens’s Ostberliner Frosch was funnier than usual.


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Since the days of gramophone, Germany and Austria have created a noble lineage of glamourous, intelligent golden-toned lyric sopranos who have left their marks in Straussian, Mozartian and lighter Wagnerian roles such as Maria Reining, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Elisabeth Grümmer, Gundula Janowitz… But the truth is that one could believe that this tradition had been long lost to voices from places really far away from Vienna and Berlin. When we think of the most famous singers tackling this repertoire since the 80’s, we would rather think of Kiri Te Kanawa, Felicity Lott, Karita Mattila or Renée Fleming. But it seems that the old tradition has been reborn – Genia Kühmeier is making slow but firm steps into more-than-deserved stardom. I am sure we will hear a lot from and about her.

And there is Anja Harteros – whose relevance in the operatic world is now beyond any doubt. Although she has sung in the most prestigious theatres of the world and received some warm reviews, one still tends to think that the best is yet to come. Although the voice has immediate appeal, I have always found her frequent visitation of Italian repertoire not entirely inspiring beyond her appealing stage persona and her Julia Roberts-like looks and congeniality. But the tonal sheen of a true Italian soprano, the crispness of authentic delivery of the Italian text she has not. Moreover, although she has attitude to spare, it is still too German an attitude, in the first place. No problem about that – but why not use it in German roles? Since I have seen her as an ideal Elsa, I have been dreaming of her Marschallin, her Arabella, her Ariadne… but so far I’ve got only her Amelia in Simon Boccanegra.

However, I cannot complain. At least, I’ve got a glimpse of her Strauss this evening at the Konzerthaus, where she sang the Vier letzte Lieder with the Staatskapelle Berlin and Zubin Mehta. After hearing this orchestra in the Alpensinfonie, Der Rosenkavalier, Elektra and Salome, I am tempted to say that they are Berlin’s no. 1 Straussian orchestra. Their transparent sound picture and their good ear for those unearthly orchestral effects is everything a Straussian orchestra should have. Zubin Mehta seemed to avoid any languor and you would have to fill in the blanks for rubato effects in his forward-movement approach. In the end, this brought an objective approach to this often sentimentalized songs. But let’s speak of Anja Harteros. I have noticed that her voice definitely suffers from recordings. The plushness of her high notes and the warmth of her middle register do not seem to make it into the microphone.

Comparing her recording with Fabio Luisi and the Staatskapelle Dresden with what I heard live was realizing that these were too completely different experiences. While she is stylish and sensitive and finds no difficulties in the recording, live her voice is far rounder and richer in tone and yet lighter and more floating at the same time. Her mezza voce is particularly warmer live. Her interpretation has deepened also – the text is more sharply coloured and she finds simply more vocal glamour in the proceedings. Frühling is particularly improved. Now she sings the exposed extreme notes with such gentleness, what makes it easier to feel the sweetness of seeing springtime again, instead of the larger-scaled telluric performances we are often made to hear. The enthusiastic applause afterwards only proves that Germany is proud of her lyric sopranos again.

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