Thursday 17 April 2008

Renée Fleming drowned by Thielemann (or possibly the acoustics) in otherwise magnificent Strauss programme in Munich

Renée Fleming with Christian Thielemann, April 13th 2008 in Munich

Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, Munich, April 13 2008
Christian Thielemann (c), Renée Fleming (soprano)

Pfitzner: Ouverture from "Käthchen von Heilbronn"
Richard Strauss orchestral songs: Freundliche vision, Verführung, Winterweihe, Zueiningung
Richard Strauss: Scene from Ariadne auf Naxos
Beethoven: Symphony no 7

Pfitzner, Richard Strauss and Beethoven are typical programming choice for Munich Philharmonic chief conductor Christian Thielemann. This Sunday matinée programme was repeated twice this week and next week will feature another three concerts with Renée Fleming singing Richard Strauss orchestral songs and an opera scene (this time from Die ägyptische Helena).

No doubt, Renée Fleming has the exact right voice and expression for Richard Strauss´ orchestral songs, and the way her voice blended in with Thielemann´s gloriously beautiful orchestra sound came close to perfection. The only, and unfortunately not minor, problem was, that she was barely audible. What we heard was Richard Strauss orchestral pieces with the occasional soprano adding beautiful sound to the woodwinds and strings. According to the locals we spoke to this was a problem regardless of seating. The lyrics were understood by no one, not because Flemings diction is substandard, but because she simply was not heard. Even in the big scene from Ariadne (accompanied with a reduced 30-man orchestra) she was not heard properly.
I do not, based on previous live experiences with Fleming, believe the problem lies mainly within the size of her voice. I was told by regular Munich concertgoers that this may be blamed on the acoustics of the Philharmonic Hall, but I do not believe Christian Thielemann to be an entirely innocent bystander either.

Christian Thielemann is no accompanist in the sense that with him the orchestra does not simply accompany, but takes on a role at least equivalent to that of the soloist. And, in my opinion, he is right to do so, particularly in Richard Strauss, where the orchestral textures are essential in creating a successful performance. And indeed, the sheer beauty and colours he extracts from the orchestra are just marvellous. However, one must expect a conductor of Thielemann´s caliber to be well acquainted with the acoustics of his own house and to be able to control the orchestra accordingly, thus I strongly suspect he could diminish the orchestral volume if he wanted to. Furthermore he has previously been known to drown out singers with considerably larger voices than Renée Fleming, such as René Pape last year in the same hall, believe it or not. On the other hand, in the Parsifal, I just heard him conduct in Vienna, all singers went through fine, even the very small voiced Mihoko Fujimura as Kundry. So, I guess the jury is still out...

Back to Renée Fleming, I seriously doubt whether Ariadne is a right role for her, although, by all standards she would perform it more than well should she decide to take it on. She seem to focus on producing a very beautiful sound with endlessly floating notes, entirely right for the Strauss song selection, but for Ariadne, I felt a lack of vocal projection and drama.

Christian Thielemann is a Pfitzner-champion to a degree that he conducts the Ouverture from Kätchen von Heilbronn without a score. Or maybe it´s just very straight forward to conduct, since the piece seems relatively monodimensial. I seriously doubt that the quality of Pfitzner´s music, at least based on this piece, deserves this much energy from Thielemann´s side. But it´s always appreciated to hear a non-standard repertoire piece in a concert like this.

Thielemann´s Beethoven was exactly as I expected it would be (and conducted without a score, of course): His primary focus also seems set on creating a glorious sound, which sweeps anything and anyone away. And it is indeed glorious, but at some points I´d like to take a look beneath that beautiful surface. The orchestra played with great enthusiasm and he is obviously well liked by both the orchestra player. And by the audience. Deservedly so. And I am certain a potential Strauss recording with Fleming and Thielemann will be marvellous, especially since the sound balances may be regulated...

All photographs by me from the concert in Munich


Anonymous said...

This seems to be a fairly common problem whenever a singer is on stage with an orchestra. I've been to a number of orchestral concerts at Carnegie Hall, which has pretty good acoustics, and several orchestras drowned out the singers who appeared with them.

Leah said...

Thank you for this wonderful review and for the fabulous pictures!


mostly opera... said...

You are most welcome!

zb said...

this performance was recorded and later released on cd by decca. if you couldn't hear renee in the house buy the cd because the microphones picked up everything. :)

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