Saturday 21 November 2009

Elisabeth Söderström 1927-2009

Obituary in The Guardian by Alan Blyth (who died himself in 2007)

Television portait of Elisabeth Söderström:

Sunday 15 November 2009

Munich: New Don Giovanni with Mariusz Kwiecien

New production of Don Giovanni just opened in Munich (October 2009). Production by Stephan Kimmig. Kent Nagano conducts. Mariusz Kwiecien is Don Giovanni. Maija Kovalevska and Ellie Dehn are the two ladies:

Friday 6 November 2009

CD: Jonas Kaufmann excels with Die Schöne Müllerin

Jonas Kaufmann (tenor), Helmut Deutsch (piano). Schubert: Die Schöne Müllerin. Released on DECCA, 2009. Further information here.

A timid, sensitive boy loves a young, beautiful woman. Initially she seems to love him too, but leaves him for a real man. The hunter beats the poetic boy to win the miller´s daughter. And, instead of just swallowing the disappointment and quite literally look for other fish in the stream, he drowns himself in it. Quite predictable, at least in the romantic universe of Schubert.

And what a major relief, that Jonas Kaufmann sings Die Schöne Müllerin without even a hint of whimpish sentimentality. A remarkable release for several reasons, but most importantly is the fresh and direct interpretation from both Jonas Kaufmann and Helmut Deutsch at the piano.

The obvious comparison is with Fritz Wunderlich, who delivers a classic reading focused on the creation of vocal moods and tonal beauty. Jonas Kaufmann bases his interpretation around sculpturing the words, rather than creating vocal moods, compromising more than occasionally with vocal beauty, especially with the sometimes strained and not entirely-in-tune topnotes. Does it matter? To some, it will. To me, it doesn´t. In that context, Jonas Kaufmann is interpretatively closer to Ian Bostridge, though without the neurotic quality of the latter.

I can hardly imagine a more fresh and direct, no-nonsense interpretation of this song cycle, which may very well be the one I will return to most often in the future.

Promotional video with excerpts:

The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average):


Renée Flemings 14 minutes in Copenhagen

Renée Fleming and Christoph Eschenbach in Copenhagen

Renée Fleming with Orchestre de Paris conducted by Christoph Eschenbach. Copenhagen, May 11th, 2009. Program: Capriccio final scene and Bruckner´s 9th symphony. Extras: Zueinigung and Morgen (R. Strauss).

Upon reading that at her recent London concert, Renée Fleming was criticized for singing approximately 20 minutes, I was reminded that immediately before her visit in Copenhagen earlier this year, I wondered what the minimum "acceptable" amount of singing at a vocal concert was. In London, she apparently was on a sort of CD-promotion tour. In Copenhagen she sang from Richard Strauss´ Capriccio: 14 minutes + 2 extra orchestra songs = 20 minutes as well. But then, she arrived with the Orchestre de Paris and Christoph Eschenbach, and the Bruckner symphony was well worth a visit. For some. Though, most certainly, the ticket prices reflected on Renée Fleming´s contribution rather than Christoph Eschenbachs, as fine as it actually was.

As to Renée Flemings singing, Richard Strauss is what she does best. She thinks so herself and I don´t hesitate to agree with her. She still has that exact blooming quality in her voice I would have imagined Richard Strauss wrote this music for, combined with exquisite phrasing. And then she is a nice person as well, turning around and singing Zueiningung facing the large part of the audience with cheap tickets sitting directly behind the orchestra.

She will be back in Copenhagen in November 2010. Hopefully with more than 14 minutes. Less is hardly feasible, I suppose.

The bottom line:


DVD review: Cunning little Vixen

The cunning little vixen. Paris Bastille Opera 2008. Production: André Engel. Cast includes: Jukka Rasilainen (Forester), Elena Tsallagova (Vixen), Hannah Esther Minutillo (Fox). Conductor: Dennis Russell Davies. Further information here.

André Engel and his team has simply created a great, straight-forward production of Janacek´s opera The cunning little vixen. A couple of seasons ago, the same team created an elegant art deco production of Cardillac for the Paris Bastille Opera, and essentially the recipe for this Vixen is the same: Minimalistic, stylish sets and straight-forward story-telling.

This Cunning little Vixen takes place in and around a railway-station. This is where the Forester lives. The rails are a permanent feature of the sets, appearing in front of a summer-landshape of sunflowers, which turn to winter towards the end of the opera. The changing of seasons as well as the influence of human industry on nature. All the animals are dressed in colourful costumes, and a child-like fairy-tale like atmosphere pervades.

All the singers are convincing singer-actors in parts, which admittedly are not too difficult to cast: This is a conductors opera. To bring off the majestic interludes is what makes this work take off. If I had never heard The Cunning little Vixen before I would probably have thought the orchestra played transparent, but well with Dennis Russell Davies. Unfortunately, however, I have heard what this score sounds like when conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras, such as in the Paris Châtelet Opera production (released on DVD in Hytner´s frankly unspectacular staging) 13 years ago: Sumptuously and densely compelling. It is hard not to wish for such a sound for this otherwise excellent production.

Excerpts here:

The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average):

The singers: 4-5 to all

André Engel´s production: 5

Dennis Russell Davies: 3

Overall impression: 4

Copenhagen: Disappointing Eugene Onegin

Natalya Kreslina and Audun Iversen
Eugene Onegin. Royal Danish Opera, September 6th 2009. Production: Peter Konwitschny. Cast: Audun Iversen (Eugene Onegin), Natalya Kreslina (Tatiana), Jenny Carlsted (Olga), Niels Jørgen Riis (Lenski), Gustav Belacek (Gremin). Conductor: Michael Schønwandt.

I sincerely do not hope, this is what the Royal Danish Opera gets (rather: Has chosen) instead of the originally promised new Peter Konwitschny production of Die Frau Ohne Schatten, which he, most unfortunately, has withdrawn from: His 1995 production of Eugene Onegin, immediately recognizable to train-afficionados as it is modeled on the Leipzig train station in the concrete sense, and the cruelty of rigid social structures in the abstract sense.

Am I unable to love Eugene Onegin outside the context of Tchaikovsky and Pushkin? I hope not. Quite as expected, Peter Konwitschny clearly rejects that universe, and, as always in his stagings, outer circumstances (such as social and political structures) is a major determinant of character outcomes, thus there are neither any entirely good nor entirely evil characters. Konwitschny clearly and intelligently explained this point of view in a local newspaper before the premiere. Based on Konwitschny´s theoretical arguments, this is a both exciting and moving production of Eugene Onegin. Based on actually seeing this production in the theater, unfortunately, it is not.

What is it about then? I am not sure. We see the Leipzig Train Station with people moving in and out (modern dress, obviously). The audience is part of the tale, as Gremin and Tatiana move to a balcony and Onegin in front of the orchestra pit at certain points. Theatre within the theatre. Society makes Onegin and Tatiana what they are, Tatiana ultimately left alone while Onegin returns to the ranks of spectators. All of this leaves me extra-ordinarily non-moved, though I would not be surprised if Audun Iversen goes on to have a major career.

At this point, I would normally say that at least Michael Schønwandt and the Royal Danish Orchestra saved the evening. Unfortunately they did not as Schønwandt chose a very transparent reading of the score cementating this as a rather boring evening.

What makes this all the more irritating is the fact the Peter Konwitschny really does know how nail it (Michael Schønwandt as well): Their almost-beyond-praise production of Elektra, without doubt the best performance I have seen in my 25 years as a regular visitor to the Royal Danish Opera, will come up this Spring. As they say: Now is the time to look to the future.

The bottom line:

Audun Iversen: 4-5
Natalya Kreslina: 4
Jenny Carlstedt: 3-4
Niels Jørgen Riis: 3-4
Gustav Belacek: 3-4

Peter Konwitschny: 1

Michael Schønwandt: 3-4

Overall impression: 2

Irmgard Seefried - lieder

Irmgard Seefried - lieder. 2-CD release of previously released material. Released 2007. Further information including track-list here.

German soprano Irmgard Seefried (1919-1988) was an ensemble member of the Vienna State Opera in the socalled golden period of the 1050´s, contemporary with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Lisa della Casa, Christa Ludwig. A lyric soprano, among her operatic roles she was most renowned singing Mozart (Pamina, Susanna) and Richard Strauss (Composer-Ariadne and Octavian).

Most will agree, though, that where she truly excelled was in lieder, where she was perhaps the most admired interpreter of her time. I would expand that statement to say that, in my opinion, she is among the very few finest lied interpreters of all times.

What makes Irmgard Seefried so compelling is her completely unmannered and straight delivery, rendering a timeless air to her interpretations. Even Elisabeth Schwarzkopf stated that everyone in Vienna around that time admired Irmgard Seefried for her naturalness. Communicating the message always takes first place with Irmgard Seefried applying a minimum of vibrato and an even register, though strictly technically, she may be less than perfect, occasionally drifting slightly off-pitch. However, these things hardly matter as the apparent sincerity and honesty are entirely unmatched.

Among the many highlights are Mussorgsky´s Nunnery. Irmgard Seefried did much to "rehabilitate" the songs of Mozart, previously considered light fare, which are also represented here.

This double-disc is a re-release of previous recordings between 1953-60. Accompanied by Erik Werba.

Irmgard Seefried in her absolute prime (1947) with Schuberts Wiegenlied:

The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average):


Thursday 5 November 2009

DVD Eugene Onegin with outstanding Mariusz Kwiecien

Eugene Onegin. Paris Palais Garnier 2008. Director: Dmitri Tcherniakov. Cast: Mariusz Kwiecien (Eugene Onegin), Tatiana Monogarova (Tatiana), Andrey Dunaev (Lenski), Margarita Mamsikova (Olga), Anatoli Kotcherga (Gremin). Conductor: Alexandre Vedernikov with the Bolshoi orchestra and choir.

It is not a small thing to update the Russian National Opera, a project even young director Dmitri Tcherniakov admittedly felt more than slightly daunted by, replacing the 1944 production with this one, opening 2006 in Moscow. Following his intriguing and outstanding productions of Boris Godunov and The Gambler (both at the Berlin State Opera) and Khovanshchina (in Munich), this Bolshoi production opened the 2008-9 opera season at the Palais Garnier, Paris. Almost an exclusive Russian cast of several generations of Bolshoi singers, the Madame Larina and nurse being former Tatiana´s, there is a certain Russian mood to Eugene Onegin, though not nearly as much as I´d expected.

Not surprisingly, Dmitri Tcherniakov frees himself of the romantic world of Pushkin, Tchaikovsky and their contemporaries, though, again, not nearly as much as expected. Tcherniakov simply sets the entire production around a dinner party in an upper-class living room. Which, to a certain extent, works relatively well, mostly due to his excellent direction of the singers. This Onegin is really not so haughty, he doesn´t even shoot Lenski by purpose and almost (though not quite) kills himself when he is rejected in the end. However, this living-room context still does take some of the life out of the opera, making it slightly less than engaging theatre. Considering the first-rate DVD-competition from both Metropolitan Opera and Salzburg productions in 2007, this DVD is hard to recommend.
Unless, obviously, you are a fan of Mariusz Kwiecien, who is simply outstanding as Eugene Onegin. He has a touch of lofty Russian air, seemingly ease with both language and expression (he is Polish) combined with great acting and close-to perfect voice. Next to Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Peter Mattei, we now have the third great contemporary Eugene Onegin on DVD. Unfortunately in a production inferior, both musically and scenically to both Hvorostovsky´s (the Met by Carsen with Renée Fleming and Gergiev) and Mattei´s (Salzburg by Breth with Anna Samuil and Daniel Barenboim).
The rest of the cast, save Anatoli Kotcherga´s excellent Gremin, is rather forgettable, though points must be given to Tatiana Monogarova for her perfect Tatiana-look and convincing acting.
Mariusz Kwiecien as Eugene Onegin rejecting Tatiana:
The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average):

Mariusz Kwiecien: 5
Tatiana Monogarova: 3-4
Andrey Dunaev: 3-4
Anatoli Kotcherga: 5
Margarita Mamsikova: 3
Alexandre Vedernikov: 4
Overall impression: 3

DVD: Macbeth from the Met

Macbeth. Metropolitan Opera 2008, previously shown in HD theaters. Director: Adrian Noble. Cast includes: Maria Guleghina (Lady Macbeth), Zeljo Lucic (Macbeth), Dmitri Pittas (Macduff), John Relyea (Banquo). Conductor: James Levine. Further information here.

Directed by the former manager of the Royal Shakespeare Company Adrian Noble, this Macbeth is set in the 20th century against a consistently spare and dark background, with the main focus on the sexually charged relationship between the Macbeths. Which would have worked better had Maria Guleghina or Zeljko Lucic been more sexually charged performers.
While Zeljko Lucic may sing the notes, he is distinctly uncharismatic as a performer. And while Maria Guleghina still stands at the end of this enormously challenging part, she didn´t entirely convince dramatically either. However, it is not like there are dozens of highly superior Lady´s to chose from.

There are however, several superior Banquos to chose from, buth John Relyea seems to be in everything at the Met for the moment and I wonder who they are doing a favour (hint: Not really the audience). Dmitri Pittas as Macduff was fine and furthermore showed he could cry on cue.

James Levine, on the other hand generated considerable drama in the pit, reserving his endless placidity for Wagner, it seems. A great performance from him and the orchestra.

Zeljko Lucic and Maria Guleghina after murdering the King: Fatal mia donna

Posted by Macbett0 on YouTube

The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average):

Zeljko Lucic: 3
Maria Guleghina: 3-4

The production: 3

James Levine: 4-5

Overall impression: 3-4

Thursday 1 October 2009

Thielemann Rosenkavalier with Fleming, Damrau, Koch and Kaufmann

Rosenkavalier. DVD. Baden-Baden 2009. Production: Conductor: Christian Thielemann. Cast: Renée Fleming (Marschallin), Sophie Koch (Octavian), Diana Damrau (Sophie), Franz Hawlata (Ochs), Jonas Kaufmann (A Singer).

This production has so many things going for it and yet somehow it narrowly misses the mark.
First of all, Herbert Wernicke´s production is wonderful: First seen in Salzburg 1995 and later in Paris, it is visually superfluous and sumptuous making use of a back wall of rotating mirrors. Traditional in outlook, Wernicke simply tells the story in a seemingly timeless manner.
Renée Fleming is the Marschallin. Or as I originally intended to write: Renée Fleming is Renée Fleming. There is too much Renée Fleming in her Marschallin or perhaps too little Marschallin in Renée Fleming. Word games apart, this is not among her best roles in my opinion. Somehow she seems to artificial, too mannered and not sophisticated enough in her portrait. There is a subtle balance to the Marschallin and she does not nail it. Disappointing, since I have seen her give wonderfully committed performances in this repertoire. But extra points to Ms Fleming for giving interviews in German.

Sophie Koch, somewhat miscast being too feminine in both expression and singing and with too much vibrato especially in the higher register, her weakest, where a lot of the notes are. A wonderful Charlotte is rarely a wonderful Octavian. Diana Damrau sings beautifully, but she has really moved on from Sophie. Quite a few sopranos aged below 30 could have pulled of the same in addition to portraying a young and innocent Sophie, which Damrau does not.
And Franz Hawlata, in his second Rosenkavalier DVD lacks the crudeness and (most importantly) the deep notes.

Not to forget to mention Jonas Kaufmann´s brief appearance as the tenor.

Christian Thieleman is a superb Straussian Thielemann, but he conducts Rosenkavalier as he does Die Frau Ohne Schatten: Grandious, serious, transporting. Where are the bubbliness and the walz rhythms?

Renée Fleming and Sophie Koch in Act 1:

The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average):

Renée Fleming: 4
Sophie Koch: 3-4
Diana Damrau: 3-4
Franz Hawlata: 3

Wernicke´s staging: 5
Christian Thielemann: 4

Overall impression: 4

Sunday 20 September 2009

The Anna Netrebko show hits Copenhagen

Anna Netrebko and Massimo Giordano in Copenhagen. September 19th, 2009. Emmanuel Villaume conducts the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra.

As part of a minor tour, Anna Netrebko and Massimor Giordano visited Copenhagen, complete with pre-printed programme. Netrebko´s first-ever visit in Copenhagen.

The exact happenings of the concert is described in detail here, suffice to say that this was an Anna Netrebko show, in the best sense of the word. Yes, and Massimo Giordano was also there, and he made a great contribution, both with fine individual singing and as a convincing partner to Anna Netrebko. However, most people had bought their exorbitantly priced tickets expecting a solo Anna Netrebko concert as Massimo Giordani was only listed at a later point. However, these things hardly mattered as both were rather entertaining on stage, jumping in and out, Anna Netrebko trying to play the harp etc. And, being Anna Netrebko´s birthday, the orchestra played her a birthday song and champagne was opened.

On top of this, she was in fine voice as well, which seems to get bigger and bigger. No, she may not always be exactly on pitch, and no, I really am not to bothered with it, as she has a direct expression to her singing which is rather extraordinary. That said, I still do not think Lucia di Lammermoor shows her at what I imagine would be her best. Nor does the operetta excerpt. But as Tatiana (Eugene Onegin) I would imagine her to excel.

An Anna Netrebko show for the people. In the best meaning of the word.

Overall impression:



Gounod: Overture from Roméo et Juliette
"Va! Je t´ai pardonné... Nuit d'hyménée" from Roméo et Juliette, Netrebko/Giordano
Verdi: Overture from Nabucco
Donizetti: "Regnava nel silenzio" from Lucia di Lammermoor, Anna Netrebko
Donizetti: "Una furtiva lagrima" from "L´Elisir d´Amore", Massimo Giordano
Donizetti: "Caro elisir!" from L'Elisir d'Amore",Netrebko/Giordano


Arditi: "Il bacio", Anna Netrebko
Tosti: "L'alba separa dalla luce l'ombra", Massimo Giordano
Tchaikovsky: "Polonaise" from Eugene Onegin
Piotr I. Tchaikovsky: "Kuda, Kuda" from Eugene Onegine, Massimo Giordano
Dvorak: "Song to the moon" from Rusalka, Anna Netrebko
Puccini: "Intermezzo" from Manon Lescaut
Puccini: "Che gelida manina" from La Bohème, Massimo Giordano
Puccini: "Si, mi chiamamo Mimi" from La Bohème, Anna Netrebko
Puccini: "O soave fanciulla" from La Bohème, Netrebko/Giordano

Franz Lehar: "Meine Lippen, sie küssen so heiss", Anna Netrebko
"Core'ngrato", Massimo Giordano
"Brindisi" from La Traviata, Anna Netrebko and Massimo Giordano

Friday 24 July 2009

Verbier Don Giovanni with Quasthoff, Terfel, Pape

A better casting for the male leads of Don Giovanni is hard to imagine. Unfortunately the ladies did not quite live up to their male counterparts. According to himself, this was Bryn Terfel´s last performance of Don Giovanni as the Don.

Manfred Honeck conducted the Verbier Festival Orchestra for this concert performance on July 20th 2009.

Wednesday 22 July 2009

Salzburg 2009: Claus Guth with Cosí fan tutte

Cosi Fan Tutte. Salzburg Festival 2009. Production: Claus Guth. Conductor: Adam Fischer with the Vienna Philharmonics. Cast: Miah Persson (Fiordiligi), Isabel Leonard (Dorabella), Topi Lehtipuu (Ferrando), Florian Boesch (Guglielmo), Bo Skovhus (Don Alfonso), Patricia Petibon (Despina)

German director Claus Guth´s Mozart-Da Ponte trilogy was concluded at the 2009 Salzburg Festival with Cosí fan tutte featuring a starry cast including Miah Persson, Bo Skovhus, Isabel Leonard as well as Patricia Petibon. Adam Fischer conducts the Vienna Philharmonics.

We are at the end of a party at the girls rather fancy loft apartment - all in white with the occasional African mask. Bo Skovhus´ menacing Don Alfonso sets the tone immediately: This is not comedy, but rather Claus Guth shows us the personal consequences of the partner swapping resulting in four disoriented people at the end and as the action gets darker a certain recycling of the 2008 Don Giovanni forest, which progressively enter the house.

Essential to the success of this production, singer-actors are cast in all parts, with not even one weak link. The girls take centre stage and both girls look and act fabulously with a genuine interaction not always seen. The velvety sound of Isabel Leonard mixes well with Miah Perssons elegant soprano. The boys are more anonymous, but still competent. Bo Skovhus neurotic style and commanding presence is just right for Don Alfonso combined with Patricia Petibon´s in every way excellent Despina completes an outstanding cast.

Adam Fischer conducts the Vienna Philharmonics and as always we are far from the period-inspired performances some (not me though) may prefer.

Miah Persson and Isabel Leonard "Ah, guarda sorella":

The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average):

Miah Persson: 5
Isabel Leonard: 5
Bo Skovhus: 5
Topi Lehtipuu: 4
Florian Boesch: 4

Adam Fischer: 4
Claus Guth: 5

Overall impression: 5

Tuesday 12 May 2009

Jonas Kaufmann liederabend: Unforgettable

Jonas Kaufmann, tenor. Helmut Deutsch, piano. Glyptoteket, Copenhagen. May 8th 2008.

This liederabend in the context of the series of Helge Jacobsen concerts marked German tenor Jonas Kaufmann´s first performance in Denmark, which took place in the intimate venue all of the New Carlsberg Glypotek.

Jonas Kaufmann is naturally confindent and authoritative on stage. He clearly commands the language, emphasizing expression over beauty, telling the stories, not just singing the songs. Vocally, he has never been better. A dark tenor, but fully in command of the high registers, often sung in piano or with added sprechgesang when required.

As an interpretist, Jonas Kaufmann is of the straight-forward as opposed to the wringing-sentimental type. And thanks for that. Not that he does not add to or give of himself in this selection of songs starting out with Schuberts rather long drama "Die Bürgschaft" to be followed by a completely superb Dichterliebe. Superbly suited to Richard Strauss´songs, already proven on his earlier (read: before he became famous) highly acclaimed disc of Richard Strauss lieder, he delievered completely smashing interpretations, culminating with Cäcilie. Can these songs be performed better? I really do not think so.

Malicious voices have it that Jonas Kaufmann is about looks rather than substance. Do not believe them. He has everything. Is Jonas Kaufmann not the preeminent tenor on stage today? Does these things matter? Of course they don´t. But really he is.

My only quibbles on this rather superb evening included free drinks in the New Carlsberg wintergarden are directed towards a couple of practical issues, such as having the audience loudly scrabbling through endless pages of text and the omission of the world-class accompanist Helmut Deutsch from the programme. Who by the way with his incisive playing was a major contributor to this rather unforgettable evening, which I believe will be one of the performances I will tell my grandchildren about 50 years from now: When I heard the great Jonas Kaufmann in his absolute prime. And they will answer: Ah, but why are there no tenors around like him today?

And why was this concert not sold out? Well, perhaps because it was hardly advertised anywhere? However, already now rumours has it Jonas Kaufmann will be back in Copenhagen in 2010. Do not miss it.


Die Bürgschaft
Schumann: Dichterliebe


Richard Strauss:

Fünf lieder op. 21:
All mein Gedanken..
Du mein herzens krönelein
Ach Lieb, ich muss nun scheiden
Ach weh mir unglückhaften Mann
Die Frauen sind oft fromm un still

Vier ausgewählte lieder:
Freundliche Vision
Ich liebe dich

Vier lieder op. 27:
Heimliche aufforderung
Ruhe meine Seele


The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average):


Thursday 7 May 2009

Anna Russell: The Nibelungen Ring

Classical comedian Anna Russell´s analysis of the Nibelungen Ring has become almost legendary. Here from her (first) farewell tour in 1984:

Posted on YouTube by YvonneDesire

The Nibelungen Ring in 45 seconds

Thursday 16 April 2009

Waltraud Meier as Carmen

Waltraud Meier´s performance of Carmen at the Metropolitan Opera 1997 is by many, perhaps also by herself, considered one of the low points of her career. Waltraud Meier said of the experience: "I have enormous respect for Zeffirelli, but our two styles just didn't match..The staging was folkloristic, with horses on stage and that sort of thing. It was the most horrible time, but I don't think about it any more. A mistake? Well, my philosophy is that there are no faults, only errors. You learn from your mistakes and come through knowing more."

The production was also infamous for the "that wig goes on stage with or without you"-comment to Angela Gheorghiu´s initial refusal to wear a blonde wig as Micaëla. In the end, she went on with the wig. Plácido Domingo was Don José. James Levine conducted. The whole ting was filmed, but will it also be released on DVD? Maybe not.

But what was it like? Two video excerpts are provided with Waltraud Meier´s Carmen.



And the wig with Angela Gheorghiu:

Posted by BullLee2 and Gabba02 on YouTube

Wednesday 15 April 2009

So zieht das Unheil in dies Haus (or: The Berlin Barenboim Herheim Lohengrin)

Lohengrin, Berlin State Opera, April 12th 2009. Production: Stefan Herheim. Cast: Klaus Florian Vogt (Lohengrin), Dorothea Röschmann (Elsa), Michaela Schuster (Ortrud), Gerd Grochowski (Telramund), Markus Brück (Herald), Kwangchul Youn (Heinrich). Conductor: Daniel Barenboim. Further information here.

Norwegian director Stefan Herheim has become one of the most sought-after directors after his staging of Parsifal at the Bayreuth Festival last year. Some thought Herheim created a masterpiece. Others, me among them, did not. Though I have greatly admired Stefan Herheim´s stagings of the past, such as the brilliant deconstruction of Entführung in Salzburg 2003, the Parsifal was quite simply to overly-intellectual and disorganized as I saw it.
Which also applies to this new Lohengrin production, though this time to a degree that I actually find Stefan Herheim more or less has ruined the piece.
The short version of this review is that I do not recall any new staging of any Wagnerian opera, which appealed so little to me than this Lohengrin. Daniel Barenboim, on the other hand, was sensational.
In fact I have pondered for two days on how to put this on paper in a both civilized and fair manner. And to start with the fairness, I may add that though the general opinions in the German press on Herheim´s staging were only luke-warm, this review is firmly rooted in the very negative end of the specter. Not to forget, that others found this staging to be a masterpiece.
To the point: I simply didn´t understand the concept. It was a confusing, un-dramatic as well as highly intellectual mish-mash which brought me nothing. And worst of all: It took all the attention away from the music.

It started well: A Richard Wagner puppet dances on a tree-trunk during the prelude. A feather drops down and he apparently starts to compose. We then move on to Act 1, opening in present time with groups of people waving banners displaying the three opera houses in Berlin, apparently an allegory of Brabant with The Herald starting out as the Berlin bear:
All main characters, Ortrud (and possibly Lohengrin) excepted, are puppeteers with a medieval puppet version of their character, which they control. Around the time the horn and helmet clad Lohengrin arrives, the action moves into the medieval times. Still with puppets.
And with the additional twist of all characters wearing naked-body suits with strategically placed figleaves, which they change into at various points, running around the stage.

The explanation? According to the programme booklet, Stefan Herheim explains that the sin of Eve (eating the forbidden apple thus rebelling against God) in Eden is central to the drama of Lohengrin. Who am I to say he is not right? However, as engaging theater, in my opinion it fails completely. And has very little connection to the music drama Lohengrin.

Though the puppet-puppeteer concept does seem rather appropriate for a static piece like Lohengrin, Stefan Herheim, as I see it, fails to ask (or answer) the central questions of Lohengrin, such as: Where does this man come from? Why must we not know his name etc.? Questions Peter Konwitschny actually does both ask and answer in his famous Hamburg production, a major inspirational source for Stefan Herheim.
Readers who admire Konwitschny´s Lohengrin, certainly stand a rather good chance of at least reacting more positively to Herheim´s as I do.
The working relationship between Daniel Barenboim and Stefan Herheim was not the best, with Herheim publicly accusing Daniel Barenboim, among other things, for extended abscence during rehearsals (probably rightly). Daniel Barenboim, on the other hand, publicly disagreed with Herheim´s decision to stage the prelude, a decision it was "too late to change" as he put it. A rather strange statement, as one may argue he could have thought about participating in the rehearsals at a point before it became "too late" for changing anything, including the director...

Being the third, and last, performance of this run, the orchestra was simply sensational. Somewhat unusual for Daniel Barenboim, his tempi were rather brisk. But with an energy and inner sense of the dramatic structures making this easily the best conducted Lohengrin I have heard.
Of the singers, Dorothea Röschmann stood out as a simply wonderful and very touching Elsa. With her old-fashioned way of singing, much like that of Elisabeth Grümmer, the dark colouring of her voice combined with superb, stylish phrasing made for a very moving experience. Unlike her Eva in last years Meistersinger, Elsa seems to suit her well. She does reach the limit of her voice, but she doesn´t exceed it.
Klaus Florian Vogt´s Lohengrin has spurred starkly contrasting opinions: Admirers point to his ringing, effortless topnotes. Detractors point to his monotonous singing. Both sides are right as I see it: Vogt´s Lohengrin is monotonously sung and acted with the added benefit (?) of an indifferent psychopathic air to his presentation. Though he really does hit those notes, piercing effortlessly through Barenboim´s orchestra. But contributing to any degree of interpersonal drama he does not. Neither does Stefan Herheim. At least not on stage..

Beauty of voice or expression is not what Michaela Schuster offers. However, her over-all portrait of Ortrud was superb: She clearly inhabited both the comic and desperate sides to the character and delivered a very effective, vocally as well, performance. Accompanied by Gerd Grochowski´s character barytone, singing rather well as Telramund, but having a hard time to penetrate through Barenboim´s orchestra.

How would René Pape have looked running around in a naked-body suit with figleaves and a wooden stick chasing Elsa´s bridemaids? Fortunately (for him), his illness (he has now recovered) prevented us from finding out and Kwangchul Youn delivered a fine performance.
In summary, if you ask how much action and how many intellectual concepts one may put into one Wagner opera, I´d say Stefan Herheim is the man with the answers. And if anyone should still ask who is the pre-eminent Wagnerian conductor alive, it is Daniel Barenboim.

Links to most German and international reviews of the production .

The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average):

Klaus Florian Vogt: 4
Dorothea Röschmann: 4-5
Michaela Schuster: 4
Gerd Grochowski: 4
Kwangchul Youn: 4

Stefan Herheim´s production: 1-2

Daniel Barenboim: 5

Overall impression: ?

Tuesday 14 April 2009

Munich: Eva-Maria Westbroek shines in Jenufa

Jenufa. Bavarian State Opera, April 11th 2009. Production: Barbara Frey. Cast: Eva-Maria Westbroek (Jenufa), Deborah Polaski (Kostelnicka), Stefan Margita (Laca), Joseph Kaiser (Steva), Helga Dernesch (Burya). Conductor: Kirill Petrenko. Further information here.

That Eva-Maria Westbroek (born 1971) spend the initial years of her career with endless and futile auditions leading her nowhere must make one or another opera administrator reflect just a bit as she is now establishing herself as the probably finest jugendlich-dramatische soprano of today. With a wonderful blooming quality of her voice, Eva-Maria Westbroek furthermore is a terrific actress, making it virtually impossible to not be deeply moved by this Jenufa´s fate.

Equally convincing were both leading gentlemen, particularly Stefan Margita´s superbly sung Laca, but also Joseph Kaiser as Steva. While Deborah Polaski may have more voice for the part of Kostelnicka that many of those who sing it today, a stronger stage presence (never her main asset) would have made a major difference, particularly in a character part like this. Curiously, Helga Dernesch, whom I thought belonged to the past, took the part as the Old Burya.

As the entire cast were excellent actors, it was rather disappointing how little use Barbara Frey made of them, with a rather uninteresting personenregie. She has updated Jenufa until present day, but provides little more than a traditional static theatric setting without the true interpersonal drama, which Janacek´s opera seems so full of.

Massive applause to conductor Kirill Petrenko, though I fail to see entirely why. The orchestra sounded both transparent and beautiful, but way too passive and bloodless, at least to my taste. In fact, the style of playing reminds very much of Kent Nagano, hardly a coincidence, as he is music director of the house. Why this sort of bloodless playing is so admired in Munich, is rather strange, at least to me. And even more so when Kent Nagano conducts Parsifal. But that is another topic altogether.

The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average):

Eva-Maria Westbroek: 5
Stefan Margita: 5
Joseph Kaiser: 4-5
Deborah Polaski: 3

Barbara Frey: 3

Kirill Petrenko: 4

Overall impression: 4

Monday 13 April 2009

Zurich Tosca: Magee, Kaufmann and Hampson in (too) stylish Carsen production

Tosca. Zurich Opera, April 9th 2009. Production: Robert Carsen. Cast: Emily Magee (Tosca), Jonas Kaufmann (Cavaradossi), Thomas Hampson (Scarpia). Conductor: Carlo Rizzi. Further information here.

All the ingredients were there: As starry cast, a stylish director as well as a beautiful (and sold-out) auditorium. Nevertheless, the evening never really took off.

Canadian director Robert Carsen apparently was inspired by Cavaradossi´s remark to Tosca “like Tosca in the theatre” after she instructs him on how to play dead. Thus, his Tosca is a theater-in-the-theater production, a concept Robert Carsen has tried earlier with his Hoffmann´s Tales in Paris, and generally a more intellectually rewarding than emotionally thrilling staging concept. Furthermore, this apparently is not a new production, as it appears it has been seen earlier in Barcelona, though information in this regard is not exactly forthcoming from the Zurich Opera website or magazine (read: it seems to be non-existent).

Combined with the creation of stylized Hitchkock-Hollywood images, the result is a production, which emphasizes form over substance, unfortunately draining it of drama. The overly stylized movements by Tosca, artificially coordinated with the music beneath a moving spotlight during the confrontation with Scarpia virtually draws the tension out of this, the perhaps central scene of the entire opera, briefly reminiscnet of the extreme aesthetism of Robert Wilson.

In brief, we are in a theater. As Act 1 opens we look at an operatic theater from the back of the stalls – plenty of chairs, Cavaradossi decorating the auditorium, while the curtain (of the theater-within-the-theater) finally goes up under the Te Deum to display Tosca in full stage regalia. For Act 2 we move backstage to a smoking Scarpia beneath a large VIETATO FUMARE sign, staring at a large painting of Tosca. All in a very aesthetic mix of period costumes on a virtually bare (back)-stage.

Tosca is a stylized 1950´s hollywood diva. A superficial diva, who enjoys both the spotlight (literally) and the attention from Cavaradossi as well as Scarpia while distractedly looking at the programme notes of this evenings Tosca performance..Theatre within theatre indeed.

While Cavaradossi, the only genuine character in this set-up, is the real victim: Presumably intended to be younger than Tosca (he is in real life as well), he is the only one displaying genuine emotions in his unconditionally love for Tosca and sings about his loneliness to a pitch-black auditorium from the naked stage in Act 3, into which Tosca finally jumps with her audience now vanished. It is both aesthetic and stylish. However, compelling music theater it is unfortunately not.

Despite the presence of the undisputed leading Cavaradossi of the day in Jonas Kaufmann. What does he not have? Nothing it seems. In looks and acting, he is the perfect romantic hero. He even has that barytonal glow to his voice, which does make him push for the top (as Plácido Domingo always has), but has the benefits of gaining more punch to his interpretation.
Thomas Hampson´s lyric baritone does not, on paper, seem ideal for Scarpia, though he projects the dramatic lines of the part surprisingly well. As a villain, however, he does not convince, though I am not sure Scarpia is really intended as such in this production, rather as a man, fighting with another man over a woman.
The vastly underrated Emily Magee made her role debut as Tosca, and sings the part better than anyone I can imagine today, Karita Mattila apart. The lack of emotional connection with her character may probably mainly be attributed to Carsen´s approach of the work, and it would be interesting to see her in another production. At the Met, perhaps, where her debut has been more than overdue for about a decade?
Effective, though not overly detailed, playing from the orchestra under Carlo Rizzi.

An evening, where, unfortunately the sum was somewhat less than the individual parts put together.

The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average):

Jonas Kaufmann: 5
Thomas Hampson: 4
Emily Magee: 4-5

Robert Carsen´s staging: 4

Carlo Rizzi: 3-4

Overall impression: 4

Saturday 11 April 2009

Berlin Verdi Requiem: Smashing La Scala chorus with René Pape back in top-shape

Verdi Requiem. Berlin Philharmonie, April 9th 2009. Soloists: Anja Harteros, Luciana D´Intino, Guiseppe Filianoti, René Pape. Conductor: Daniel Barenboim with La Scala orchestra and chorus.

The short version:

A smashing performance of the Verdi Requiem in the Berlin Philharmonie.

Superb La Scala Chorus.

René Pape is back in super-shape.

The long(er) version:

Dedicated to the victims of the recent earth-quake in Italy, this Good Friday performance started with one minutes silence, as requested by Daniel Barenboim from the podium.

From then on it was full speed forward in a thrilling performance on all levels: The La Scala orchestra, obviously very familiar with the piece followed Daniel Barenboim closely, pulling out all the stops without retorting to empty bravado at any point. A balance Daniel Barenboim does not always achieve in his non-Wagnerian repertoire, but here he certainly did. The sheer power of the Dies Irae virtually knocked one back in the seat. Accompanied by the superb La Scala chorus and a quartet of soloist, not to be seen better anywhere, this could very well look like a recording project.

Most importantly, René Pape was back after illness, both looking and sounding his usual self on a very good day, easily the stand-out of the very fine quartet of soloist. Though it does become increasingly obvious that his voice continues to move upwards and parts of the score seems rather low for him (such as the Lux aeterna), you will have to go back longer in time than my (rather good and long-reaching, by the way) memory reaches to hear singing of comparable beauty and expression in this part.

Excellent singing also from the rest: Anja Harteros, seemingly ideal in the lirico-spinto soprano part, Luciana d´Intino´s firm and secure mezzo and Guiseppe Filianoti delivering a performance making one question the decision to fire him after the Don Carlo dress rehearsal earlier this year at La Scala.

Overall impression: 5

Sunday 5 April 2009

Stephanie Blythe sings Brahms, Wagner and Mahler

Stephanie Blythe sings Brahms, Wagner and Mahler. 2004. Further information here.

American mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe (born 1970) continue to receive rave reviews for her performances, most notably at the Metropolitan Opera in parts such as Orfeo (Gluck), Fricka (Walküre) and Ulrica (Ballo di Maschera). Her European performances are rather scarce, a contributory factor without doubt being her large physique, of which she said in a recent interview:
“If you bring weight into a conversation, all of a sudden that’s the issue. If someone wants to take a chance and cast me in a role that is unconventional physically for me, I applaud them. They recognize the fact that I can probably bring something to the role. When I was given Orfeo at the Met you could have knocked me over. I have seen people who are half my size do a role and look the part and not inhabit the part."

Weight issues apart, this disc documents that Stephanie Blythe has the perhaps most convincing dramatic mezzo-soprano voice of today, with an astonishing depth making one wonder if she perhaps really is a contralto. On this album from 2004, she sings the classic German concert repertoire for her voice type: Wagner´s Wesendonck lieder combined with Brahms´ Alto Rhapsody and Der Abschied from Das Lied von der Erde.

Stephanie Blythe´s contribution to this disc, in short, is simply superb. Not since Christa Ludwig have I heard such a firm and steady voice combined with a wonderfully unsentimental approach. My only quibble towards ms. Blythe´s performance is that her intonation is not always razor-sharp, particularly notable in the Brahms. But what a voice she has..

Unfortunately John Nelson´s Ensemble Orchestral de Paris does not entirely match this high level. Furthermore, much to my distaste, Hans Werner Henzes orchestration of the Wesendonck lieder was chosen for this recording, whose transparent approach I have never felt suits either the Wesendonck lieder in general or Stephanie Blythe´s voice in particular.

Stephanie Blythe with Schmerzen from Wesendonck lieder:

The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average):


Berlin: Herheim Barenboim Lohengrin with marionettes and pre-opening controversy

Norwegian director Stefan Herheim´s new production of Lohengrin opened yesterday, April 4th at the Berlin State Opera. Cast included Klaus Florian Vogt, Dorothea Röschmann (in her role debut as Elsa), Kwangchul Youn (replacing René Pape). Daniel Barenboim conducted.

The premiere has been surrounded by more than the usual dose of controversy/press hysteria as Stefan Herheim and Daniel Barenboim apparently had a rather below-average working relationship, with Stefan Herheim being quoted in interviews as saying that "Daniel Barenboim appears a honorary guest in his own house..he hardly followed the stage don´t exactly encourage the curiousity to bring music and theater together in this way" and stating that "Barenboim has another understanding of music theater [than Herheim]". At the website of the Berlin State Opera, Stefan Herheim subsequently distanced himself from the general tone of this article originally published in Die Welt, however the quotes, I believe, remain.

Daniel Barenboim has responded with the following: “I have admired Stefan Herheim’s work in the past, and I like the way he thinks.. But we have a disagreement about the overture.” Which, Barenboim (as usual with Wagner) prefers being played curtain down.

And the perforkmance? We already knew that string puppets/marionettes would appear and that Herheim was inspired by Peter Konwitschny´s 10 year old Hamburg Lohengrin production.
I did unfortunately not attend the premiere, but from preliminary reports I understand that the main concept evolved around the current opera house situation in Berlin + Richard Wagner´s composition process with characters reflecting in marionette alter egos and that at least as much stage action went on as in Herheims Bayreuth Parsifal. If that is indeed the case, I believe I shall side with Daniel Barenboim in the "understanding of music theater" discussion.

More later.

Monday 16 March 2009

Wieland Wagner´s 1965 Bayreuth Ring - rare rehearsal footage

Fascinating and rare rehearsal footage from Wieland Wagner´s legendary 1965 Bayreuth Festival Ring, conducted by Karl Böhm

Rheingold with Theo Adam, Gustav Neidlinger, Wolfgang Windgassen etc:

Walküre Act 1 with Léonie Rysanek and James King:

Walküre 2 with Martti Talvela etc:

Götterdämmerung - including Birgit Nilsson, Josef Greindl, Anja Silja:

Published by ringburg on YouTube.

Sunday 15 March 2009

Malena Ernman, operatic mezzosoprano and pop princess

Swedish operatic lyric mezzo-soprano Malena Ernman (born 1970), whom some may remember as a stunning Miss Julie in Philippe Boesmans opera in Aix-en-Provence (or on DVD), just won the Swedish Eurovision Song Contest Final with "La Voix", a rather strange mix of Nessun Dorma and synthesizer pop. She will now represent Sweden in the Eurovision final in Moscow.

Upcoming engagements include Cenerentola in Frankfurt and Stockholm as well as Dido in Wien.

Malena Ernman in the Eurovision Song Contest with La Voix:

And Malena Ernman at her "normal job" as a rather superb Nerone (Agrippina) with René Jacobs from Paris Theatre Champs-Elysées (cast includes Antonacci and Miah Persson):

Saturday 14 March 2009

The alternative MET Anniversary Gala

I hereby present "The alternative Metropolitan Opera Anniversary Gala" introducing 10 top artists: 8 singers, 1 director and 1 conductor. All active today enjoying high-profile careers - everywhere else but at The Met. All artists have in common that they have never appeared at the Met, for more, or rather less, obvious reasons.

Artists known (at least to me) to make their debuts in upcoming seasons such as Miah Persson, Annette Dasch, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Nadja Michael etc. are excluded.

Anna Caterina Antonacci as Carmen:

Emily Magee as Gutrune in Götterdämmerung:

Veronique Gens as Donna Elvira:

Anne Schwanewilms as Carlota in Die Gezeichneten:

Anna Larsson in the Mahler 3rd symphony with Claudio Abbado:

Irene Théorin as Turandot:

Petra Lang as Venus:

Johan Reuter in Maskarade:

And the conductor Mariss Jansons with the director Martin Kusej in Lady Macbeth from Mtsensk:

Thursday 12 March 2009

René Pape to cancel MET 125th Anniversary Gala on Sunday

Due to illness René Pape will not appear at the MET Gala this Sunday. Instead, John Tomlinson will sing from Boris Godunov and James Morris will sing Wotan. And John Relyea will sing "Veau D´Or".

Furthermore, René Pape will be replaced by Kwangchul Youn in the April 4th premiere of Lohengrin in Berlin.

Wednesday 11 March 2009

Berlin Parsifal: Domingo redeems himself in knock-out performance from Barenboim and Waltraud Meier

Parsifal. Berlin State Opera, March 9th. Director: Eichinger. Cast: Plácido Domingo (Parsifal), Waltraud Meier (Kundry), Robert Holl (Gurnemanz), Hanno Müller-Brachmann (Amfortas), Christof Fischesser (Klingsor). Conductor: Daniel Barenboim. Further information here.

There were two major differences between the performance of March 6th and that of yesterday: First, and most importantly, Daniel Barenboim simply nailed it. And secondly, Plácido Domingo proved that he can sing the part of Parsifal, substituting Fridays lack of preparation with a performance it is hard not to admire.

You simply do not sustain a 40+ year top career gaining you virtually legendary status without putting in a considerable amount of hard work combined with keen self-insight and criticism. Mainly for these reasons I was not surprised that Plácido Domingo had improved vastly from his performance last Friday.
Admittedly, Plácido Domingo doesn´t look and move like (some of) his 30 years younger colleagues, but he still sings better than anyone I have heard live in the part. Vocally he is at least as solid as on the 2005 Thielemann-recording, and while he may still have relied on prompting for parts of Act 2 (audible only twice even from the front row seats, which is quite normal), it didn´t significantly detract from this performance. Even if I still don´t think Parsifal brings out his true dramatic strengths (whether 40 or 70 years old), it was hard not to find his performance impressive. Though I´d expect the Simon Boccanegra he returns to the Berlin State Opera with this upcoming October will show him in an even better light.

How often do you sit in the audience, watch a singer and think: I don´t think this part has ever been better performed in the entire history of the work? It is such with Waltraud Meier´s Kundry, whose charisma and plain ability to project the character is beyond description and kicks any vocal deficiencies into oblivion.

It is also such with René Pape´s Gurnemanz. That is: Had he been there. And it is both unfair and unrealistic to expect that veteran Wagnerian (and previous Bayreuth-Hans Sachs), the not overly charismatic Robert Holl substituting at short notice, should suddenly aspire to perform at that level. His was an honorable and solid, though not overly exciting Gurnemanz.

I wouldn´t be surprised if Christof Fischesser went on to bigger things as he is a plainly superb Klingsor, even more secure at this second performance.
Hanno Müller-Brachmann repeated his beautiful and lyric interpretation of Amfortas from Friday.
Also a well-sung performance from Andreas Bauer as Titurel, coming off to the worst possible start as the curtain went up about 2 minutes too early during the Act 1 transformation music exposing him drinking from a waterbottle under the changing sets.
And a minor quibble on a related note: I would rather have the spear not changing hands from Klingsor to Parsifal at all, than to see all sorts of non-convincing spear appearances, especially when, as yesterday, the spear appeared from a hole in the floor next to Domingo, before Klingsor had even thrown it. Bernd Eichinger is obviously no opera director. But he is a film director. Could he not have made that exchange (even when it works) look more convincing?

Now to the real star of the evening:

While I admit to having been seduced by Christian Thielemann´s glitteringly, beautiful Parsifal, compared to Daniel Barenboim´s quite obvious understanding of the deeper structures of the work, Thielemann now seems superficial. Key elements in Barenboim´s reading being string rubato and accentuation as well as emphasis on the contrapunctual elements, of which, it turns out, there are quite a few. The disturbing, underlying elements of the work are exposed far below the glittery beauty in performance, with echoes lingering on for days.
Daniel Barenboim is slow, though for most parts it is a relative slowness as his Act 1 clocks in at 1:50 – exactly as Thielemann´s in Vienna last year. And curiously he even paced both sets of Transformation music considerably faster than usual.
Basically I would just like to know how he does it. How does he see those connections within the music that apparently no-one else sees? How does he approaches the score? I may just have to become a music journalist and interview him to get the answers..To summarize, I have never heard a better conducted Parsifal.

Massive applause to everyone from an unusually mixed audience, including a large fraction of Spanish-speaking visitors as well as the usual loud misunderstood hissings from semi-studied self-proclaimed expert Wagnerians at those (me included) applauding after Act 1 (which is perfectly acceptable, but requires an entire post to explain).

The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average):

Plácido Domingo: 4-5
Waltraud Meier: 6
Robert Holl: 4
Christof Fischesser: 5
Hanno Müller-Brachmann: 5

Daniel Barenboim: 6

Overall impression: 4-5
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