A Matter Of Choice

In Classical Music, Opera on April 2, 2011 at 12:23 pm

Listening to – Rodelinda (Il Complesso Barocco)

I recently attended two performances where – at the last minute – there were changes in the line of principals. Now I am not naive enough to think that this is not an occasional hazard for ensembles and that they make every effort to find suitable replacements. Yet the two performances I attended show how very different the experience can be.

First of all let it be said that in both cases the replacement artists were – we were clearly informed – both well-known in the respective roles themselves.

In the first instance the stand-in was in every way, superlative. I do not only mean in terms of the actual performance itself, but the fact that in her interpretation she did not in any way attempt to emulate the stylistic mannerisms of the performer that she replaced and which sometimes the audience expects. She very much made the character and the performance her own and this made for an unforgettable experience.

The second experience was not so enjoyable. It was hard to believe that the tenor in question had in fact performed the role in it’s entirety before. Of which more anon.

So back to the first performance. Alcina with Les Musiciens du Louvre. Anja Harteros was to perform the title role – for which she had already been lauded by critics. However she was unable to perform in London – the cold weather was blamed. Disappointing as it potentially was, she was replaced by Inga Kalna and I admit that she was not a soprano I was acquainted with. The slip note informed us that Ms Kalna had not only performed the role before in Europe, but had performed this specific role with Minkowski and Les Musiciens in Grenoble, their home town. So on paper at least she had form. And in performance she did not disappoint. Hers was an interpretation that was obviously built on experience, and while she did not deliver the vocal fireworks that I – as well as many people no doubt expected from Ms Harteros – was expecting, she provided vocal fireworks aplenty of her own. Her Ah! Il Mio Cor was not only heart-rendingly beautiful, but delivered with a real sense of musical pathos. My only gripe was that perhaps Minkowski took it a tad too fast. But overall Ms Kalna created her own Alcina – rich in both interpretation and character – which enabled the rest of the cast to reach their own musical and emotional peaks.

One small aside before I move on. Vessalina Kassarova. Despite what some critics wrote, she was superb and I feel that this was in no small way a result of Ms Kalna’s performance. Indeed her performance as Ruggiero led me to listen again to her CD of Handel arias with renewed interest – and taught me (again!) – never to take a critic’s opinion at face value.

And so to Tristan und Isolde. Now I am the first to acknowledge that this opera presents – even when the cast does not change at all – significant challenges. The original cast was meant to be American tenor Stephen Gould in the title role, with Katarina Dalayman as his Isolde. Unfortunately Gould was replaced by Kirov tenor Leonid Zakhozhaev. A quick glance at his homepage and nothing would seem amiss. Plenty of references to his perfect German diction and in fact, one glowing review of his performance of Tristan. As I have already said, this blog is about my personal experiences and opinions, but on this occasion I do not think I was far off the mark. I am sure that in some repertoire Zakhozhaev is an exceptional performer. Needless to say I would imagine he excels in Russian repertoire and indeed in most other tenor roles. But not as Tristan. I admit that some external factors need to be considered. He was dropped in cold into a production that he did not know. But the production was not challenging. For once, and with some relief on my part, it did not display the usual affections of Personregie that you sometimes see in German productions (Because it was a co-production with Montpellier perhaps?) and was pretty much static. Clearly the direction was just a little north of ‘stand and deliver’ but Zakhozhaev made this seem even more wooden.

So to his actual singing. Tristan requires a tenor that not only has the notes and the ‘heft’, but also one that that sing in shades of colour and delicacy. Heppner had this once and occasionally it still gleams through. Zakhozhaev struggled from the beginning. Singing at one volume, in one flat tone even his German – to a non-German like me – sounded strained, with his diction almost non-existent. His struggle was clear from his first appearance and his struggle at the end of Act I did not bode well for Act II. And he didn’t disappoint. The duet was long and arduous – for the audience. And there was clearly no ‘frisson’ between Zakhozhaev and Dalayman and even she gave up trying to lead him on stage. Needless to say the final Act was a disaster. Within minutes of his monologue I was myself praying that Isolde’s ship would come earlier and cut short both his and the audience’s agony.

I know that when a principal cancels at short notice it can be difficult to find a replacement. However I remember most recently when Christian Gerhaher was delayed en route for Tannhauser, the understudy more than ably performed until his arrival. Indeed much as I was thrilled by Gerhaher’s arrival in time for the final act, I did feel somewhat sorry for the understudy who so valiantly and rather brilliantly took on the mantle at short notice.

On this occasion I cannot believe that Zakhozhaev – all the way from St Petersburg – was the best option. Perhaps I am wrong but surely in the whole of Germany or indeed Northern Europe a more suitable Tristan could have been found than the lacklustre and troubled Zakhozhaev? Even if that meant – as at Covent Garden and Tannhauser – the replacement sang from the side of the stage while someone else acted the role.

Katarina Dalayman was an impressive Isolde. She certainly has the heft for the role but perhaps because of Zakhozhaev she was not at her best. The Liebestod – while moving and a worthy intepretation – was ‘of a single volume’ with little subtlety, and therefore any sense of a ‘blissful’ state was hard to muster or convey. However again this could be down to her Tristan.

A small word for Liang Li as King Mark. He made this small yet vital role come alive. His Act II monologue was palpable with regal disappointment and betrayal.

The production was interesting and, as I have said, pretty much devoid of the usual affectations prevalent in most Personregie – such as making tea or breakfast. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes – as in Loy’s Tristan und Isolde – subtle and well-placed direction adds great value and insight, but more often than not I find the discipline of Personregie sinks to the banal and a desire to fill the music with action. I won’t try to understand the ‘Samurai’ lilt to the production, but not too much was made of this. I did admire the inference that Isolde was trapped in her own mind that the bare walls of Act I produced and the second Act was beautifully conceived in terms of portraying the ‘endless night’.

And finally to Asher Fisch. I admire and enjoy his conducting of The Ring and in Tristan und Isolde he did not disappoint. He found the ‘chamber’ element in the orchestration and for the most part succeeded in finding the balance between the singers and the orchestra.

Apart from when Zakhozhaev was singing and at thus points – particularly when the tenor was exposed or alone – he ramped up the orchestral sound.

Confidence in his Tristan? I think not.

Enough said.

  1. Hello there, You’ve done a great job. I will definitely digg it and personally suggest to my friends. I am sure they’ll be benefited from this site.

  2. […] me one of the stand out performances was Katarina Dalayman’s Kundry. Vocally she was superb. Her voice was rich and even throughout its register and she […]

Let me know what you think ...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.

Good Music Speaks

A music blog written by Rich Brown

Kurt Nemes' Classical Music Almanac

(A love affair with music)

Gareth's Culture and Travel Blog

Sharing my cultural and travel experiences

The Oxford Culture Review

"I have nothing to say, and I am saying it" - John Cage

The Passacaglia Test

The provision and purview of classical music

Peter Hoesing

...a musicologist examining diverse artistic media in critical perspective


Oxford Brookes: Exploring Research Trends in Opera

%d bloggers like this: