Friday 29 June 2007

Renée Fleming: Wonderful Thaïs

(photograph of Renée Fleming from Opéra chanteuse)

Thaïs. Concert performance. June 2007. Royal Opera, London. Cast: Renée Fleming (Thaïs), Simone Alberghini (Athanäel), Joseph Calleja (Nicias). Conductor: Andrew Davis.

Renée Fleming was absolutely wonderful as Thaïs in this London concert performance at the Royal Opera House, part of an European Thaïs tour.

In many ways, Renée Fleming is ideal as Thaïs. Her floating singing style, relying rather heavily on portamento, combined with excellent acting and a captivating stage presence made for a very convincing performance. On other occasions I have had the impression that she holds somewhat back vocally, but not on this occasion where she seemed to be using her full voice throughout. Renée Fleming was, by the way, dressed in a beautiful long red silk dress with shawl for the first and second act, changing into a light brown very simple long dress for the last act.

Simone Alberghini was Athanäel, stepping in for an indisposed Thomas Hampson. Under the circumstances he performed well, without being able to generate real interest for his character, though. Joseph Calleja deservedly received massive applause as he was in excellent voice as Nicias.
The orchestra just played excellent and sumptuous under Andrew Davis, a complete turnaround compared to the horrible performance in Fidelio a couple of weeks ago.

The day before the performance I received an e-mail informing of Thomas Hampson´s cancellation. Good service. But I find it strange that you are required to be at the Opera House a minimum of 30 minutes before the performance (due to extra security measures) and then you have to wait outside the auditorium until 5 minutes before curtain-up cramped together in the foyer.

Monday 25 June 2007

Copenhagen: Haydn´s Creation with Thomas Quasthoff

The Creation. June 2007. Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen. Soloists: Thomas Quasthoff, Klara Ek, Marcel Reijans. Conductor: Helmut Rilling.

I have always had mixed opinions on Thomas Quasthoff as an artist. While I deeply admire his achievements, I generally finde his interpretations too emotional and sentimental, especially in Schubert and Mahler, which are cornerstones in Quasthoff´s repertoire.
In this Creation, however, he displayed none of these tendencies, providing a very much to the point reading displaying his very beautiful voice which has considerably more ring to the lower registry than I´expected.

Accompanied by the fine young Swedish soprano Klara Ek and the conductor Helmut Rilling, who genuinely extracted enthusiasm from the Tivoli Symphony Orchestra playing, as always, on modern instruments.

After the concert, the music director of Tivoli, Nikolaj Koppel interviewed Rilling and Quasthoff on stage. Among other things, both artists agreed that period vs. no period performance was not an important issue: The important thing was making the music come alive. A statement with which I very much agree. Directly asked, Thomas Quasthoff furthermore stated he had no intentions of doing more operatic roles.

Marvellous Elektra at The Royal Danish Opera

Elektra. Royal Danish Opera 2006. Director: Peter Konwitschny. Cast: Eva Johansson (Elektra), Tina Kiberg (Chrysothemis), Susanne Resmark (Klytemnestra). Conductor: Michael Schønwandt.

After more than 20 years as a regular at the Royal Danish Opera, this Elektra is probably the best production I have ever seen here. A genuine artistic triumph, dramatically as well as musically staged at the new water-front Copenhagen Opera House.

Peter Konwitschny´s concept is simply brilliant: A giant electric timer dominates the stage continually counting down to time=zero with Oreste´s slaying of Aegisth. The murder of Agamemnon is played out in front of the curtain immediately before the music sets in with Agamemnon´s body in the bathtub present on stage throughout the opera, being pushed around by Elektra (psychologically explanatory notes redundant).

The sets are neutral with a strict geometrical aesthetism, rather unusual for Konwitschny, at least compared to his previous productions of Lohengrin, Parsifal and The Flying Dutchman. A sofa and a table in the otherwise naked living-room of Aegisth and Klytemnestra. Bodyguards thoroughly searching all visitors before granting them entrance to these futuristic rulers of society. With the death of Aegisth a new world begins, necessitating the eradication of any traces of the old. Thus, it is only logical that the men of Orest kill both Elektra and Chrysothemis as well as everybody else in an impressive inferno of machine gun salves marking the new beginning.
On the musical side, the Royal Danish Orchestra with Michael Schønwandt has never been better – with excellent attention to detail as well as to the overall dramatic drive. Especially the woodwind section seem very strong at the moment.

Eva Johansson is simply the strongest Elektra imaginable on stage today, vocally as well as dramatically as documented on the recently released Zurich Elektra DVD. Her steely soprano with minimal vibrato, easy top-notes as well as slightly neurotic acting are simply perfect for the part. Furthermore as Chrysothemis, Tina Kiberg delivers her best performance in several seasons. Susanne Resmark´s dramatic mezzo and commanding presence is ideal for Klytemnestra. Admittedly a great Klytemnestra does not need a great voice to convince, but it doesn´t hurt either.

In summary, a major success for the Royal Danish Opera.

New production of Boris Godunov in Vienna

Boris Godunov. Vienna State Opera, June 1st 2007. Production: Yannis Kokkos. Cast: Ferruccio Furlanetto (Boris), Robert Holl (Pimen), Nadia Krasteeva (Marina), Marian Talaba (False Dmitri). Conductor: Daniele Gatti.

This was the second performance of the new Yannis Kokkos produced Boris Godunov (originally assigned to Willy Decker, who´d cancelled) at the Vienna State Opera.

As both the Simpleton, Church and Kromy Forest Scene + a reduced version of the Polish Scenes were played, it required some detective work (read: Look in the programme notes) to find out exactly what version was on. As it appeared, Yannis Kokkos and conductor Daniele Gatti had assembled a “new” version – a mix of the 1869 and 1972 versions including all of the above scenes with the original Mussorgsky orchestration. This decision created some confusion in the audience after Boris´ death, since most people thought the opera was over, which in fact it was not, leaving the Simpleton scene to close the show.

In Yannis Kokkos production, the rise and fall of Boris Godunov mirrors the eternal rise and fall of power, the false Dimitri taking on a similar position at the end as Boris did in the beginning – a cycle of power, so to speak. The problem with the inclusion of the Polish scenes, in my opinion, is the risk of dispersing the action away from the central themes of Boris and into a blind Polish alley. In this production, the Polish Scenes make sense as the rise and fall of Boris runs a parallel course to the rise and fall of the false Dimitri. My main objection to this otherwise very fine production is a certain lack of dramatic focus in Kokkos´ direction of the singers – a little too often they hang rather aimlessly around the stage waiting for their turn to sing.

Yannis Kokkos is also responsible for the sets, very simple with costumes and robes of brocade for Boris and the other notables.

The star of the evening was definitely Ferruccio Furlanetto. His voice is in remarkably good shape, he has no problems with the top notes and his acting is very convincing. Robert Holl is somewhat less convincing vocally as Pimen, while Nadia Krasteeva makes a fine Marina (the originally scheduled Olga Borodina apparently was released from her contract due to "irreconcilable differences with the management" (VSO)). Marian Talaba was rather tame as Boris´alter ego - the false Dimitri.

The orchestra under Daniele Gatti played with a very raw, dramatically convincing sound, without doubt facilitated by the use of Mussorgsky´s own orchestration (as opposed to Rimsky-Korsakoff´s more glittering approach).

Paris Ballo di Maschera: Stylish production, varying performances

Ballo in maschera. Paris Bastille Opera, June 2007. Production: Gilbert Deflo. Cast: Evan Bowers (Riccardo), Angela Brown (Amelia), Ludovic Tézier (Renato), Elena Manistina (Ulrica), Camilla Tilling (Oscar). Conductor: Semyon Bychkov.

With 35 degrees Celcius outside on a sunny Sunday afternoon, who really wants to be inside the (by the way freezing) Bastille Opera where Gilbert Deflo´s new production of Ballo In Maschera had opened just a week previously?

As expected for those familiar with previous Gilbert Deflo productions, such as Manon and the Prokofiev Oranges, this Ballo in maschera was equally minimalistic and aesthetic. A typical scene: A white marble eagle towering over a greek amphiteatre. Then everything becomes black and in the middle we see Ulrica, the African-American (is this the politically correct word?) traditional healer. The colours are predominantly black, red and white. Do we get any new insights into the characters and their motivations? Not really. But everything is very stylish.

Ludovic Tézier is Renato - not only does he look good, he also has a powerful and steady Verdian baryton voice, and delivered a smashing "Eri tu". He deservedly got the biggest applause of the afternoon.

In the other end of the spectrum Angela Brown simply delivered some of the worst singing I have ever heard of a lead singer in a major house: She has no control of either her middle or upper register, with a vibrato that has gotten completely out of hand. That she is a very large woman does not help our identifying her with Amelia either, especially when she only seemed to have two facial expressions: Sorrow and desperate sorrow. She was in fact booed after her Graveyard aria, not acceptable audience behaviour in my opinion, but it underlines my point: She was not good.

Marcelo Álvarez had canceled his Riccardo, which instead went to Evan Bowers, who was good without being exceptional or memorable. His main problem is monotony - in stage presence as well as singing. Camilla Tilling was a lively Oscar. Non-black people almost always look stupid when made to look black and Elena Manistina was no exception: They forgot to paint her upper chest. Vocally she was acceptable, but no more than that.

Semyon Bychov and the orchestra were effective, precise as well as engaged.

Karita Mattila´s Fidelio at the Royal Opera

Fidelio. Royal Opera, Covent Garden. June 2007. Production: Jürgen Flimm. Cast: Karita Mattila (Leonore), Eric Halfvarsson (Rocco), Endrik Wottrich (Florestan), Terje Stensvold (Pizzarro). Conductor: Antonio Pappano.

This Jürgen Flimm production of Fidelio has previously been seen at the Metropolitan Opera and was considered controversial when it opened in 2000. Why, I find it hard to see.

Jürgen Flimm´s Fidelio is text-book straight-forward, no-nonsense, following Beethoven´s "script". Yes, it does take place in an unspecified time-period, probably mid-20th century in a totalitarian state. We do see handguns, and A President as opposed to A Minister arrives towards the end. But that pretty much sums up the controversy, as I see it. Furthermore Jürgen Flimm is very detailed in his direction of the singers and there is constantly activity on stage, though not approaching my irritation threshold.

Finnish soprano Karita Mattila is a radiant Fidelio, a part optimally suited to her unique air of shyness combined with determination, her wonderful middle-register and straight-forward singing, with a minimum of portamento. The velvety beauty of her middle must be among the most beautiful things on an opera stage today. Emotionally involved as well as vocally convincing. As she appeared here, Karita Mattila seemed the ideal Fidelio.

The magnificent Norwegian bass-barytone Terje Stensvold was Pizzaro. Employed for 30 years at the Norwegian National Opera before embarking on an international career 5-6 years ago, at 60 he now seems to be everywhere, with a voice effortly filling the auditorium.
Endrik Wottrich, with the dubious pleasure of being completely overpowered by Terje Stensvold in the Stockholm Walküre, delivered his one aria (well). Eric Halfvarsson was in more steady voice than is often the case for him at this point in his careeer as Rocco.

But...what happened in the pit? The orchestra conducted by Antonio Pappano sounded disorganised, dissynchronized, dis---whatever. Better luck next time. Really.

Ticket prices at the Royal Opera are what they are, obviously. And, it may be argued, if the quality of performances are three times as high as anywhere else, they obviously would be justified..

The Metropolitan run of this Fidelio production (with Karita Mattila, Ben Heppner and René Pape) is released on DVD.

Paris: Waltraud Meier´s mesmerizing Ortrud

Lohengrin. Paris Bastille Opera. June 8th 2007. Production: Robert Carsen. Cast: Ben Heppner (Lohengrin), Mireille Delunsch (Elsa), Waltraud Meier (Otrud), Jean-Philippe Lafont (Telramund), Jan-Hendrik Rootering (King Heinrich). Conductor: Michael Gürtler.

Robert Carsen´s mid-90´s Lohengrin production for the Bastille Opera takes place in an unspecific war/post-war setting. Everything about this staging speaks war and desolation. Ít is dark and grey, entirely without warmth or comfort. The people of Brabant appear in ragged clothes. The King wears the uniform of a General.

To this land of war without hope, Lohengrin suddenly arrives - on a swan. He clearly comes directly from Paradise as illustrated by the lush green background scenery from where he appears - and ultimately disappears. Upon his departure, he brings back a leaf from one of these paradisic trees and plants among these warriors as a sign of hope - evil is conquered at last.

The center of the action was Waltraud Meier´s mesmerizing Ortrud. Her radiance is magnetic and even though she doesn´t even sing a note in act 1, she still manages to be the center of attention. Her razor-sharp voice effortlessly filled the auditorium (on pitch as well) in a shattering portrayal of Ortrud, which I do not expect to be surpassed in my life-time.

Compared to this almost unnatural tour de force Mireille Delunsch actually was a rather fine Elsa. She has a very floating and expressive way of singing, which suited Elsa well.

Ben Heppner was Lohengrin, and though he may have a beautiful voice, he is distinctively unexpressive. On top of this one may add his mediocre dramatical skills - basically he seems to have 2-3 facial expressions, to be used at random.

Jean-Philippe Lafont was a rather weak Telramund and also Jan-Hendrik Rootering seems to have his future behind him. Evgeni Nikitin as the Heerrufer, on the other hand, was excellent. As was the orchestra, conducted by Michael Güttler in his only performance of the otherwise Valery Gergiev-conducted run.

The evening, however, belonged to Waltraud Meier.

Friday 15 June 2007

Munich: Meier, Pape, Smith in Fidelio

Fidelio, Bavarian State Opera. April 2007. Production: Peter Mussbach. Cast: Waltraud Meier (Leonore), René Pape (Rocco), Robert Dean Smith (Florestan). Conductor: Chrisof Prick

Together with Freischütz, Fidelio probably has the unofficial status of German national opera. Which is probably the main reason it more often than not draws top-casting, in this case even including René Pape substituting at the last minute for I-don´t-even-remember-who.

Peter Mussbach´s Fidelio production for the Bavarian State Opera is, as always, minimalistic and aesthetic. In this case unfortunately, one may add a considerable amount of dust, resulting in a rather boring Fidelio: A large staircase in the middle of a plain room makes up the center of the production. Florestan seems hidden underneath a heap of trash. Any interpretative ideas on the part of Mussbach were clearly not communicated to the audience.

Waltraud Meier makes a very moving Leonore, in a part, which however is not ideally suited to her voice, at least not as it sounds now. The floating and expressive way of singing which makes her Wagnerian parts so exceptional, simply doesn´t come to its right in the more stringent requirements of Beethoven. Futhermore, she was considerably strained in the top. Biggest applause, quite deservedly, to René Pape: Excellent as always. Though Rocco, for him, is admittedly a medium-opportunity role. And Robert Dean Smith sang his one aria with conviction. Christof Prick conducted without creating attention, one way or the other.

Thursday 14 June 2007

Dresden Semperoper: Die Frau ohne Schatten

Die Frau Ohne Schatten. Dresden Semperoper. March 2007. Production: Hans Holmann. Cast: Alan Titus (Barak), Luana DeVol (Barak´s Wife), Jon Ketilsson (Emperor), Susan Anthony (Empress). Conductor: Marc Albrecht.

In many ways, the Dresden Semperoper is Richard Strauss´ own theater, the place of the world premiere of works such as Salome, Elektra and Rosenkavalier. The Zwinger Gallery is next door, the river just outside and the views of the old city of Dresden are magnificent.

Die Frau Ohne Schatten, Richard Strauss answer to the Magic Flute is a fascinating work, his most interesting post-Elektra opera, in my opinion.

Director Hans Holmann (also responsible for the Zurich Parsifal) sees Die Frau Ohne Schatten as a childrens fairy-tale, told by The Nurse. The sets are simple and black with superimposed grotesque geometric elements in bright colors, through which the various characters enter and exit. I would have imagined the parallel worlds inherent in the plot (Emperor vs. Dyer) would inspire more daring interpretations, but this did not seem to be case here...

Vocally, the evening was largely disappointing: Luana DeVol is definitely past her prime, with a shrill voice and excessive vibrato as Barak´s Wife matched by Alan Titus as her weak and dry husband. Both Jon Ketilsson and Susan Anthony as the Emperial couple were rather anonymous, both vocally and dramatically. The name of The Nurse is better forgotten (I actually have forgotten it..).

Marc Albrecht created just the right balance between attention to detail and grasp of the overall structure of the work. No surprise, that the Staatskapelle Dresden is a first-rate Richard Strauss-orchestra – this season all of Richard Strauss´ operas are on the schedule..

Friday 8 June 2007

Arabella: Adrianne Pieczonka, Thomas Hampson and Genia Kühmeier in Vienna

Adrianne Pieczonka and Thomas Hampson in Arabella.

Arabella. Vienna State Opera. March 2007. Production: Sven-Erik Bechtolf. Cast: Adrianne Pieczonka (Arabella), Thomas Hampson (Mandryka), Genia Kühmeier (Zdenka), Michael Schade (Matteo). Conductor: Franz Welser-Möst.

Bechtolf´s postmodern Arabella takes place in METROPOL - a modern hotel cum bar, dominated by brown colours, flashing neonlights and mirrors. That apart, the story was told relatively straightforward and the production received rave reviws, not least due to the musical aspects at the 2006 premiere at the Vienna State Opera.

Adrianne Pieczonka once again showed why Richard Strauss is her true fach. Though interpretatively closer to the Marschallin (which she portrayed on the superb 2003 Salzburg Rosenkavalier DVD) than the young girl Arabella, her singing was simply superb, with wonderfully exquisite and nuanced characterization.

In both presence and manners, Thomas Hampson is close to the ideal Mandryka: The awkward, shy country-guy, not really knowing how to behave around what he perceives to be aristocracy (in fact Arabella´s family are on the fringes of upper-class Viennese society).
Luckily (for him) Thomas Hampson is so well-known at the Vienna State Opera, that his vocal indisposition (though not announced) was clear to anyone, as he was virtually incapable of hitting the notes towards the end. Once again: Whose interest exactly is the management serving by not announcing these things? I don´t even see the point in (trying to) fool the first-time operagoing tourists occupying the standing room spaces..

Genia Kühmeier was simply wonderful as Zdenka, with a shining lyrical soprano unmatched on stage today. She received the largest applause of the evening. Accompanied by a Michael Schade in top-form as Matteo.

Franz Welser-Möst conducted and the orchestra played as brilliant as ever.

Tuesday 5 June 2007

Berlin: René Pape as Boris Godunov

Boris Godunov. Berlin State Opera, March 2007. Production: Dmitri Tcherniakov. Cast: René Pape (Boris) , Burkhard Fritz (False Dmitri) etc. Conductor: Daniel Barenboim.

Young Russian director Dmitri Tcherniakov´s 2005 staging of Boris Godunov (1869 original version without intermission) at the Berlin State Opera has been controversial from the start (read: this is not a traditional staging). I am firmly rooted in the bravo camp and in short, I find Tcherniakov´s concept quite brilliant:

This Boris Godunov takes place in 2010 Russia. Boris , The President is haunted by his conscience with recurring nightmares of the false Dmitri, while Shuisky, the great manipulator pulls the strings, and controls Boris by constantly scheming and conspiring behind his back. The focus on internal power struggles is rather clear. Here, one feels sorry for Boris.

First of all René Pape is a magnificent Boris. On his own terms, however. First of all he actually sings all the notes, almost in bel canto style with the usual unstrained top notes.
Not that you need to actually sing all the notes, in order to be a great Boris, as many of the greats of the past in this traditional profudo role (such as Martti Talvela, Aage Haugland just to mention a few) have clearly demonstrated. But the part does benefit from it. Furthermore, I do not see any compelling reason why Boris Godonov needs to be performed by a singer in the last stages of his career.

The most revealing aspect of René Pape´s performance, however, was his appearance on stage. His very human Boris breaks down completely on stage in a way I honestly did not think him capable of dramatically. There is nothing left of his normally somewhat cool and lofty manners.

Furthermore, Russian speaking friends claim his Russian to be excellent, undoubtedly an added benefit of growing up behind the Iron Curtain (he is from Dresden). By a large margin the most convincing Boris on stage today. To be repeated in Peter Stein´s new production at the MET in 2010, as well as in Dresden in the 2008-9 season.

Daniel Barenboim´s reading is both dense, structured and committed. I am still not entirely at home with Mussorgsky´s original orchestration, something entirely different from Rimsky-Korsakoffs glittering brilliance, but with the added benefits of a very rugged authenticity.

Of the others, Burkhard Fritz was excellent as the false Dmitri demonstration a considerable talent for comedy as well as being in fine voice.

René Pape with Boris´monologue ("I have attained power") from this production:

Friday 1 June 2007

Berlin Don Carlo: Himmelmann´s dysfunctional family

Don Carlo. Berlin State Opera, April 2007. Production: Himmelmann. Cast: René Pape (Filippo), Norma Fantini (Elisabetta), Beatrice Uria-Monzon (Eboli), Andrew Richards (Don Carlos), Roman Trekel (Posa), Kwangchoul Youn (Inquisitor). Conductor: Paolo Carignani.

In Philipp Himmelmann´s Don Carlo, the central character is Filippo as the entire concept evolving around Filippo´s dysfunctional modern royal family: Carlo, the foolish teenager; Eboli, a sort of security agent; Elisabetta, a confused wife; and Filippo, trying to keep up both outer and inner appearances. One of the major strengths of this production is the visualization of the division between the private and public lives of this modern royal family, as we observe them in both private (mainly during meals) and public functions.

The love story between Carlo an Elisabetta is clearly secondary to the relationship between Filippo and Elisabetta, which again is secondary to Filippo´s inner struggles. Carlo is handed over to the police/inquisition at the end, restoring “business as usual” as the Inquisitor takes the now empty seat at the dinner table.

In summary, I thought this production rather brilliant as opposed to Himmelmann´s previous Macbeth in Dresden, which somehow missed the boat. Clearly Himmelmann´s Don Carlo was based on a very thorough study of the text and the insights he provides are not negligeable.

Obviously, quite a few people disagreed with me as I counted at least 8 people leaving their front-row seats in the middle of the second act as well as quite a few, which didn´t return after the intermission.
Now, why anyone would want to leave Don Carlo before Ella giammai m´amo, especially with the current cast is completely beyond me, no matter how many naked bodies are put on fire during the auto-da-fe (quite a few in this production, as it turned out).

That René Pape was a magnificent Filippo was entirely expected, though he was clearly only medium-inspired. That he overpowered Kwangchoul Youn´s by all standards fine Inquisitor was equally expected. Beatrice Uria-Monzon was an effective, though vocally not pretty Eboli, while I never really took to Norma Fantini´s somewhat bleak Elisabetta. As the confused teenageboy Andrew Richards was rather convincing and Roman Trekel was in fine voice, which however has become rather dry as Posa. All accompanied by a competent
Paolo Carignani in the pit.

Photograph courtesy of Berlin State Opera
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