Thursday 28 June 2012

Magdalena Kozena - Love and longing

Love and longing. CD. 2012. Songs by Ravel, Dvorak and Mahler. Simon Rattle conducts the Berlin Philharmonics.

Even after pondering the question, I still think that Magdalena Kozena (born 1973) probably has the most beautiful voice around anywhere on stage today. And she just becomes better and better.

In my book, she is essentially a concert and lied singer, though she regularly performs in opera. Projecting mixure of shyness and awkwardness (not vocally mind you) on the operatic stage, I have seen her as both Octavian and Melisande. And her Idamante is available on DVD. However, it is on the concert stage, she does her finest work. And nothing she has done is really better than this recent disc with songs by Ravel (Sheherazade), Dvorak (Biblical Songs op. 99), and Mahler (Rückert-lieder) entitled "Love and longing" in accordance with recent record labelling trends.

With a creamy voice of incredible beauty, even throughout the register, she possesses an instrument as few (really is there anyone else?) today. Combined with profound textual understanding as well as faultless phrasing, I really do not have a critical word to say of this disc. Not to forget the superb accompanying provided by the Berlin Philharmonics under Simon Rattle. They just show us just how important the orchestra is in orchestral songs, with a performance far far above average.

Album trailer:

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


Monday 25 June 2012

Gerald Finley Winterreise

Gerald Finley (barytone) and Julius Drake (piano): Winterreise. Bruxelles, Theatre de Monnaie. June 20th 2012.

Gerald Finley´s Winterreise is truly an emotional journey. Passing from an initial state of repressed anger to to true anger, then to madness and ultimately we see the naked grief. I don´t remember when I have heard a Winterreise with these changes of emotion presented so contrastingly as Gerald Finley does. And always without sentimentality, he started many of the songs half-turned away from the audience. However, as a performer he is far from introvert and oozes a patrician elegance which suits Schubert so well.
The voice, of course I´d almost say, is superb and fully capable of displaying every emotional state Finley desires to display.
All sensitively and dynamically accompanied by long-time recital partner Julius Drake, Winterreise do not get delivered much better than this. Lieder singing at the highest level.

Overall impression (scale of 1-5, 3=average):


Friday 22 June 2012

Deconstructing Il trovatore: A role play in Bruxelles

Il trovatore. Opera Monnaie, Bruxelles. June 19th 2012. Production:  Dmitri Tcherniakov. Conductor: Marc Minkowski. Cast: Misha Didyk (Manrico), Marina Poplavskaya (Leonora), Scott Hendricks (Luna), Sylvie Brunet (Azucena), Giovanni Furlanetto (Ferrando).

Right at the beginning a signboard tells us that ” years have passed since some of the events of Il Trovatore”. In fact, we are inside a deserted patrician villa in present time. Azucena has invited the participants Manrico (a rock-musician), Luna (a businessman), Leonora (a femme fatale) and Ferrando (Luna´s father?) to participate in “a role play to elucidate their common past” as written on a signboard.
Initially, the singers read their lines from a piece of paper, but as the opera moves on, the characters identify more and more with their Trovatore counterparts: Luna grows increasingly mad, Leonora and Manrico have a love affair, and Azucena, a jaded beauty, eventually becomes mad.
According to the programme notes, director Dmitri Tcherniakovs rationale was that, in his opinion, the first 2,5 acts consist mainly of flash-backs and story-telling and only the last 3 scenes represent present day. As he feels the role of the chorus is secondary and static they are placed in the pit. All the small roles (Ines etc.) have been dispersed with and their parts are sung by some of the other characters and we are presented with a true chamber play facilitated by Tcherniakovs superb personal direction.
All this culminates in a last act, where Luna have gone completely mad and kills Manrico, after Leonora poisoned herself (he already killed Ferrando in the end of Act 3), only to die of a heart attack when Azucena told him, he´d kill his brother.

For me, there are some major logical gaps, that I can´t seem to get around: 1) It was my impression that these 5 people did not know each other beforehand. Then, however, there is a logic gap in Act 4, when Luna shoots his brother Manrico. So this shabby musician was the brother of the business man? And how did that come about? And where does all the gypsy business then fit in? 2) According to Dmitri Tcherniakov´s program notes, however, the protagonists shared a common past. In that case Act 4 makes sense, however, everything sung about troubadours and gypsies does not as I don´t assume Tcherniakov meant them to have known each other in some metaphysical way 800 years earlier??

You sometimes hear the saying that the action in Il trovatore is so improbable, that a realistic staging does not makes sense. Not necessarily true as David McVicar does a fine job at the DVD from the Metropolitan Opera in a relatively traditional staging focusing on the drama between the protagonists.
Such a deconstructional version of Il Trovatore as Dmitri Tcherniakovs is rarely seen in a major opera house. Tcherniakovs version has nothing to do with the libretto, of course, but nevertheless the idea is quite intriguing and gives reason for afterthought for a long time. However, the concept is 100% reliant upon the theatrical qualities of the singers, and here Dmitri Tcherniakov worked with an exceptionally committed team. As theatre however, I am ambiguous as too whether it worked out. You´d have to appreciated the finesses in the chamber play, otherwise you´d be terribly bored as I couldn´t help being for the first two acts, at least.

Now to the singing – aiaiai - applause after several of the major arias was no more than barely polite. First, and worst, Misha Didyk: A couple of notes in his middle register sounded about right. The rest, vast majority were indeterminable. Needless to say, he was massively overparted here.

Then, Marina Poplavskaya, a singer with an exceptionally beautiful middle register and a fascinating stage presence- whatever is meant by X-factor, she definitely has it. The singing however, was to put it very diplomatically, not quite at the level demanded by the challenges of the part.  Her legato-lines are virtually non-existent, often she retorted to shrieking out her top notes and the coloraturas were not to be repeated. Why she signed on to this is beyond me. I sincerely hope she will never sing this part again.

I didn´t quite take to Scott Hendricks rather grainy baritone, but as a singer-actor he is quite formidable, in many ways dramatically carrying the show. Last, and best, was Sylvie Brunet as Azucena, a solid as well as unusually elegant performance. Deservedly she got the biggest applause of the evening.

Also superb was Marc Minkowski in the pit, a swift dynamic reading, with a interesting emphasis on the woodwinds, that I haven´t heard before.

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

Misha Didyk: 1
Marina Poplavskaya: 2
Scott Hendricks: 3
Sylvie Brunet: 4-5

Dmitri Tcherniakov´s production: 3

Marc Minkowski: 5

Overall impression: 3-4

Thursday 21 June 2012

Renée Fleming is Arabella in Paris

Arabella. Paris Opera Bastille. June 17th 2012. Production: Marco Arturo Marelli. Conductor: Philippe Jordan. Cast: Renée Fleming (Arabella), Michael Volle (Mandryka), Julia Kleiter (Zdenka), Joseph Kaiser (Matteo), Kurt Rydl (Waldner), Doris Soffel (Adelaide), Iride Martinez (Fiakermilli).

Renée Fleming obviously has reached a level where she can chose which directors to work with, apparently preferring to work in stylish, minimalistic production straying not too far from the libretto. Thus a couple of years ago she was a quite superb Cappriccio Countess in Vienna in a production of Marco Arturo Marelli, also behind this new production of Arabella at the Bastille Opera in Paris. Here, however, she was somewhat  less than superb and her performance underlined an evolution, which has become increasingly visible in her performances during the past years, at least in Richard Strauss operas:

First of all Renée Fleming is definitely not in her vocal prime anymore. Much of the bloom of her top register has gone, and her middle register, by some still called creamy, is far from creamy now with a timbre, which simply does not appeal to me.

Secondly, I have some issues with her performance style. Some call it mannerisms. In my native Danish language there is a very good word for it, which directly translated read affected. Affected language, affected acting. Renée Fleming may aim to communicate sophistication, as she applies the same style with her Marschallin in Rosenkavalier, however ultimately she portrays Arabella as a superficial character. Which, on the other hand, is a valid interpreation, of course, if not the libretto and music suggest otherwise.
She was audible, but not audible enough for me to actually distinguish the words she was singing.

However, however...for those not familiar with Renée Flemings previous vocal status, and even for those well familiar with it, it is easy to understand why she is admired and received huge ovations here: She has a firm grip of Straussian style and first and foremost she has a distinctness to her performance that really does make her stand out. On a technical point, some may find her use of portamento excessive, though personally I do not mind.

And finally, despite my reservations about her voice, she is still among the very finest around. Who today, can perform a finer Arabella? Adrienne Pieczonka in Vienna a couple of years ago was rather superb. Anne Schwanewilms undoubtedly also. But else?

Michael Volle, on the other hand, I don´t have any reservations about. He was simply superb, vocally strong, a straightforward and engaging stage actor, convincingly portraying Mandryka as a sincere man unfamiliar with the sophisticated Viennese way, but thankfully without the overacting often seen. Several of his scenes were in fact unusually moving.

No reservations about Julia Kleiter neither, a clear and pure voice, almost overpowering Renée Fleming at times. Just as fine as her Zdenka on the 2007 Zurich Arabella DVD, alongside Renée Fleming as well.

Despite fine singing I have always found Joseph Kaiser, a bit indistinctive as a performer. Here as well. Finally Kurt Rydl and Doris Soffel were feisty as the elderly couple.

Marco Arturo Marelli´s production was superb. Stylish, minimalistic and elegant. A naked white room with some furniture (gradually removed), a built-in white circular stage and some sliding doors.

Philippe Jordan conducts Arabella like it was Elektra, emphasising the contrasts and highlighting the darker thematic elements of the score to a degree I haven´t quite heard before. 

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

Renée Fleming: 4
Michael Volle: 5
Julia Kleiter: 5
Joseph Kaiser: 4

Marelli´s production: 5
Philippe Jordan: 4

Overall impression: 4

Wednesday 20 June 2012

Les Pecheurs de Perles at Opera Comique

Les Pecheurs des Perles. Opera Comique (Paris). June 18th 2012. Production: Yoshi Oida. Conductor: Leo Hussain with Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France. Cast: Sonya Yoncheva (Leyla), Dmitry Korchak (Nadir), André Heyboer (Zurga), Nicolas Testé (Nourabad).

That I did not have a ticket for this evenings sold-out performance did not bother me as last-minute tickets normally are not that difficult to come by in Paris, as a fair amount of people normally sell their tickets outside the theatre just before the show. However, had I given more thought to the facts that 1) Pecheurs de Perles is quite popular here in France, 2) Opera Comique is an extremely atmospheric opera house with only about 5 productions every year and 3) this was the opening night of an entirely sold-out run, I would probably have arrived a little earlier than 20 minutes before curtain-time. Only sheer luck awarded me with a ticket, bought 5 minutes before show-time, as I was competing with at least 15 other people, left ticketless.

First of all, much is to be said for attending opera performances at Opera Comique, infinitely more atmospheric than the huge auditorium down at the Place de Bastille. And the history of the place including the world premieres of Carmen and Pélleas and Melisande, just to name a few.
The production, however, was disappointing with Japanese director Yoshi Oida created a simplistic, though stylistically confusing production. Set on the naked stage painted in an impressionistic pattern of bluish colours and elevated like a wave, he made effective use of a group of dancers representing some of the pearl fishers and repeatedly disappearing behind the wave. However, with Leyla dressed as a semi-Indian looking belly-dancer, Zurga and Nadir in indeterminable rags, the Pearl Fisher´s occasionally like Japanese karate fighters, the styles simply did not seem to match and Yoshi Oida would have been much better off choosing one of them - ie. Japanese or Indian or a third one. My major criticism, however, concerns  his apparent lack of personal direction of the singers, who looked like they were simply left to themselves on stage, delivering the lines. Admittedly the libretto is not among the finest, but with only three singers on stage for the majority of time, without personal direction it simply does not work, though his choreographic concept was intriguing.
I did not quite take to André Heyboer´s rather wooden timbre and stiff acting and whoever made the casting decision to give the superb Nicolas Testé the small role of Nourabad instead of that of Zurga should have some kind of reprimande.
Dmitry Korchak has some upcoming high-profile engagement including Lenski in the Vienna production of Eugene Onegin with Anna Netrebko and Dmitri Hvorostovsky next year. His is a pleasant voice, but still, I find him rather non-distinctive as an artist. His french diction, however, was superb, with every word to be understood without consulting the text panels.

The true revelation of the evening was the 31-year old Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva, winner of the Operalia competition in 2010 and in the beginning of a career, which will definitely take her places most sopranos don´t go. Hers is a lyric voice with an exceptionally beautiful dark timbre, and she produced some astonishing singing especially in her Act 3 confrontation with Zurga. A voice I just hoped would go on and one. To quibble a little she may still improve on controlling her higher register, her vibrato (on the large side) and work on her acting skills, in which I suspect she was not helpted  by the director. As she is young, all this may come in due time, however. May come, suspected not helped by the director.

Leo Hussain did well with a reduced (12 violins in total for example) orchestra though more strings obviously create a more creamy sound. However, the small orchestra pit of the Opera Comique is not sized for Wagnerian kind of orchestra.

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

Sonya Yoncheva: 4-5
Dmitry Korchak: 4
André Heyboer: 2-3
Nicolas Testé: 5

Yoshi Oida´s direction: 3
Overall impression: 3

Tuesday 12 June 2012

mostly opera on facebook

Due to the change in facebook rules for setting up pages vs. groups, I have set up a "mostly opera" page, where the blogposts will also appear + quite a few news-related additional posts.

Sunday 10 June 2012

Carmen at The Met

Carmen. DVD. 2010. Metropolitan Opera. Production: Richard Eyre. Conductor: Yannick Nezet-Seguin. Cast: Elina Garanca (Carmen), Roberto Alagna (Don J), Teddy Tahu Rhodes (Escamillo), Barbara Frittoli (Micaela).

Last time The New York Metropolitan Opera presented a new production of Carmen was in 1997, directed by Zeffirelli with Waltraud Meier as Carmen ("it was the most horrible time in my career"), and Angela Gheorghiu ("that wig goes on stage with or without you") as Micäela. This time around, Angela Gheorghiu was originally scheduled as Carmen, but withdrew allegedly due to private problems - i.e. her separation from husband Roberto Alagna - as of now (2012) they seem to be together again though. However, so-called "dramatic issues" also played a part in her cancellation. Understandably so. As Carmen you´d need a vocal heft, particularly in the lower register, that Gheorghiu simply does not have and furthermore in a house the size of the Met..not an obvious recipe for success, I´d say.

The current production opened on New Years Eve 2009, directed by Richard Eyre, who chose to update the story to the 1930 Spanish Civil War, thus emphasizing the political context of the piece - i.e. underlining the inherent conflicts between soldiers and townspeople. The sets are relatively simple and the story is told in a straight-forward manner. Perhaps not overly exiting or inventive, but a staging which will satisfy most audiences, not an unimportant consideration for an production which is supposed to fill the house regularly with everchanging cast members for the next 10+ years.
The replacement for Angela Gheorghiu was Elina Garanca, a vocally superb, though cool Carmen. There are simply no other mezzo-soprano today with the same beautiful even tone throughout the entire register. At no point was she strained. Some may lack a bit of wildness and spontaneity, but this is just not Garanca´s style. Garanca portraits a woman in the 1930´s, who is definitely not a vamp, but a calculating woman. As such it is difficult to fault her something. Those wanting more wildness may look forward to seeing Anita Rachvelishvili when she appears in the same production in the 2012-13 season.

As for Roberto Alagna, he really does seem to have a vocal renaissance in these years. Don José is a good part for him. If I sound less than completely enthusiastic it is simply that I have never really taken to Alagna´s style. But he does what he always has been doing, and better than in a long time as well.
Barbara Frittoli´s vibrato unfortunately has widened quite a bit the last 4-5 years, but her appearance as Micaëla is wonderful. Teddy Tahu Rhodes replacing an ill Mariusz Kwiecien with three hours notice, looks great, but vocally he does not really have the vocal qualities of a great Escamillo.
Points to Keith Miller as well for excellent characterization as Zuniga.

Yannick Nezet-Seguin is repeatedly mentioned as one of the favourites to take over after James Levine, when the latter officially resigns (these years he is barely conducting due to protracted health problems). And why not? He is a fine conductor, delivering a colourful and dynamic interpretation of the score.

For many, this could be a first choice. Alternatively, for a bit more sparkle between the protagonists, look for Jonas Kaufmann and Anna Caterina Antonacci´s 2006 version from London.

Final scene:

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

Elina Garanca: 5
Roberto Alagna: 4
Teddy Tahu Rhodes: 3
Barbara Frittoli: 3

Richard Eyre: 3
Yannick Nezet Seguin: 4-5

Overall impression: 4

Thursday 7 June 2012

adriana lecouvreur with angela gheorghiu and jonas kaufmann

Adriana Lecouvreur. DVD. London Royal Opera House 2010. Production: David McVicar. Conductor: Mark Elder. Cast: Angela Gheorghiu (Adriana), Jonas Kaufmann (Maurizio), Olga Borodina (La principessa di Bouillon), Alessandro Corbelli (Michonnet), David Soar (Quinault), Iain Paton (Poisson), Janis Kelly (Mademoiselle Jouvenot), Sarah Castle (Mademoiselle Dangeville), Maurizio Muraro (Principe di Bouillon), Bonaventura Bottone (Abbé de Chazeuil).

When David McVicar´s new production of Adriana Lecouvreur opened in 2010 at the London Royal Opera, a substantial part of the criticism seemed to focus on the qualities of Cilea´s work, expressing disappointment that Adriana Lecouvreur is not that hidden master-piece that some, for inexplicably reasons, thought it was. Since Adriana Lecouvreur premiered in 1902 it has been in and out of favour (mostly out though), depending mainly on the desires of one the days great sopranos to take on the title role. A title role famous for both dramatic demands as well as a reasonably low tessitura, making it ideal for divas nearing retirement.
Now, thus, Angela Gheorghiu has been a driving  force behind this production and what a pleasure it is to hear a voice still in it´s  prime for this part. And as the diva on stage, she seems more or less to play herself - as always one might say - but here, it really does suit the role almost to perfection. Agreed, the vocal dramatic demands of the role may somewhat exceed her capacity, but personally, it is something I care very little about in a production, where she embodies the character to a greater degree than almost everything else she has done on stage.
And then there is Jonas Kaufmann as Maurizio and he is quite simply perfect, playing what he does best: The ultimate romantic hero.

The third key component to this DVD, which I honestly believe will not be bettered in my lifetime, is David McVicar, creating a quite traditional production, centered around a baroque theater. No advanced interpretations here, but in this case this is exactly what this verismo thriller needs: Beautiful sets, straight-forward story-line and...perhaps most importantly, detailed direction of the singers. Even an infamous non-actress as Olga Borodina seems well into her character as well as still being vocally in her prime. Particularly the character of Maurizio is well developed from McVicar: Perhaps not at all the perfect romantic hero you´d initially thought he was, but one whom you may suspect of a second agenda. And then the always reliable Alessandro Corbelli - a real find as Michonnet.

Mark Elder does what he can. Admittedly Cilea was not a great orchestrator, but if one takes the work at face value, this DVD is very entertaining.

Angela Gheorghiu and Jonas Kaufmann in Act 2:

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

Angela Gheorgiu: 4-5
Jonas Kaufmann: 5
Olga Borodina: 4
Alessandro Corbelli: 5

David McVicars production: 5
Mark Elder: 4

Overall impression: 5

Monday 4 June 2012

elza van den heever


Nationality: South African.
Born: 1979, Johannesburg, South Africa.
Education and early career in brief: San Francisco Conservatory of Music. San Francisco Opera young artists programme. From 2008 ensemble member at the Frankfurt Opera.
Voice: Lyric-dramatic soprano.Originally trained as a mezzo-soprano
Main repertoire includes: Donna Anna (Don G), Elsa (Lohengrin), Elisabetta (Don Carlos)
Main events until now: Donna Anna (San Francisco - main stage opera debut in 2007), Elsa (Lohengrin) in Munich, Fiordiligi (Cosí fan tutte) at Paris-Bastille. Many roles (Elsa, Desdemona, Elisabetta (Don C) in Frankfurt. Metropolitan Opera debut in Maria Stuarda as Elisabetta ( "a notable debut"in January 2013.
Upcoming major events: Awaiting release of 2013-14 opera house schedules.
Future performances here

Selected links:

2009 interview with Elza van den Heever on her career and life
2010 interview with Elza van den Heever on her career and life.
Another 2010 interview
2012 interview with Elza van den Heever about working at The Met.
2013 feature by New York Times

2010 San Francisco Review (Vier letzte lieder)

Elettra (Idomeneo) - D´Oreste d´Ajace:

Elisabetta (Maria Stuarda) - confrontation scene with Joyce DiDonato, Metropolitan Opera, 2013:

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