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
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