Posts Tagged ‘Doris Soffel’

Four Play – Strauss in Berlin

In Classical Music, Opera, Richard Strauss on April 13, 2016 at 9:49 am

Four days of exceptional singing.

Four days of brilliant orchestral playing.

Four days and a full range of emotions.

Four days in Berlin for Elektra, Die Äegyptische Helena, Die Liebe der Danae and Der Rosenkavalier.

The standard of each performance was remarkably high. At times, incomparable.

It began and ended with two remarkable performances – Evelyn Herlitzius as Elektra and the Marschallin of Michael Kaune. Ms Herlitzius divides people like a Riesling. But whatever your taste, there’s no denying that her interpretation is both formidable and mesmerising. Not always vocally beautiful or precise, it is searing in its intensity, emotionally raging and matched by a dramatic commitment that is almost overwhelming. What is missing is the breadth of phrasing but it was nonetheless an exceptional performance. And in the ‘other corner’ of this emotional boxing match, Doris Soffel invested Klytemnestra with authority both regal and musical.

Replacing Anja Harteros, Michaela Kaune immediately erased any sense of disappointment with an incredibly memorable Marschallin – beautifully observed, musically intelligent and delicately nuanced. It was perhaps one of the finest interpretations I’ve heard in a while. Every word, each phrase carefully shaped and delivered. The result? She did suddenly look old at her levée; bitter and resentful of youth as she muttered about ‘Resi’ and without a doubt the wife of a Feldmarschall when she finally dismissed Ochs. Yet it was her performance in the final trio that was definitive. Her singing and her acting conveyed a simple fact – that her life was entering a new and final phase. One of loneliness. No more Octavians hiding in her bedchamber. It wasn’t resignation as much as defeat. Heartbreaking.

In Helena, Ricarda Merbeth and Laura Aiken were vocally resplendent, effortlessly riding the crest of Strauss rich and heady orchestration. Indeed in the opening of Act Two, Merberth’s post-coital vocal rapture not only matched that of the music but had me wondering she had abandoned Menelaus – wonderfully sung here by Stefan Vinke – for the boy Paris if the sex was so good? And as ever it was delightful to hear Ronnita Miller. When will we hear her in London, I wonder?

The real discovery of the four days was Daniela Sindram. Her Octavian went from swaggering seventeen year old to love struck teenager over three acts. Combined with real acting talent is a remarkably rich, burnished yet darkly hued mezzo that shows no sign of strain throughout its range. Definitely one to keep an eye out for.

Manuela Uhl and Mark Delavan both delivered conscientious performances. Delevan’s was both musical and dramatically confident but slightly underpowered. Uhl’s Chryosthemis failed to ignite the much needed desperation and her vocal line didn’t soar quite enough as others in the role. As Danae, and I saw her in exactly the same production a few years ago, she gave a beautifully nuanced performance but it took until the final act before she shone vocally.

As Der Rosenkavalier’s Sophie, Siobhan Stagg’s performance captured the young girl’s skittishness. I’ve also no doubt that the harsh edge to her voice will be ironed out as her voice develops further. When that happens, Ms Stagg could become a memorable Sophie.

Each and every other singer over the four nights was of an exceptionally high standard. Exceptional mention for Tobias Kehrer’s broodingly resonant Oreste, Michael Kupfer-Radecky’s patrician Faninal and the brightly voiced Midas of Raymond Very. All three particularly stood out in roles that more commonly suffer. It’s also easy to forget that Der Rosenkavalier is truly an ensemble opera and there were exceptionally strong performances across the board including Stephanie Lauricella as Annina, Fionnuala McCarthy’s Marianne and tenor Matthew Newlin.

It was also refreshing to sit through four intelligent, well-thought out productions.

Elektra, directed by Kirsten Harms, was couched in the inevitable doom and gloom of overwhelming tragedy. Enclosed by three walls, it was reminiscent of the garbage chute in Star Wars, especially as the ensemble spent a lot of time floundering around in the mud. Just once I’d like to see a bit more colour at Klytemnestra’s court. She’s a rich woman at the head of a corrupt and debauched court – you think she’d have some fun with it, wouldn’t you?

The Kismet-meets-Indiana Jones of Die Ägyptische Helena (Marco Arturo Marelli) was a visual delight. And xxx managed the shift from the more comedic opening to the closing pathos with great skill. And as Helena says farewell to Aithra and her cohorts, it felt that perhaps she wasn’t really going to completely give up her flirtatious ways, as Menelaus reaction also seemed to convey.

Strauss was often criticised for his commercial acumen. He fought hard to control the copyright of his music, and perhaps rightly so having witnessed the chaos of Wagner’s own attempts. The sheets-of-music-cum-shower-of-gold in Die Liebe Der Danae was a clear reference to this, as was the piano spinning ominously overhead throughout. Yet at the end, Danae willingly handed over the gold/music to Jupiter in exchange for eternal happiness with the donkey herder. Not sure Strauss would have agreed.

Götz Friedrich’s Der Rosenkavalier was first performed in 1993 and is ample demonstration that if a production works, why change it? It seamlessly brought together the worlds of 18th Century Vienna with the world that would have been more familiar to Strauss himself. I loved the fact that the ‘maskerade’ referred to by the Marschallin at the ended actually begun before the opera started. As mistress and lover dressed for their breakfast in Act One, they clearly donned outfits inspired by the commedia dell’arte. Another nice touch was when the Marschallin scented the silver rose in Da geht er hin – it added a certain frisson in the Second Act when Octavian smells the rose and then looks up at Sophie.

But it was the poignancy of this production that was most enduring – especially the final scene. After a ‘Ja, ja’ of resignation, the Marschallin stood in the background, destined only ever to observe Octavian from a distance. In some productions, there’s a lingering hope that Octavian might return to her. Not in this one. For director Friedrich, the Marschallin’s First Act view of men cruelly rings true.

The bedrock on which these four days rested was the superlative orchestral playing and singing of the Deutsche Oper. The players in the pit executed each opera perfectly on four successive nights – a testament not only to their stamina but also their knowledge and clearly evident love of the music. They were directed by a quartet of conductors with an intimate knowledge of every musical detail which enabled them not only to balance singers and the orchestra, but most importantly giving both time and space to breathe.

I’ve not always been a fan of Donald Runnicles but his Elektra revealed an incredible range of colours and sororities with a vigorous attention to rhythmic detail. Andrew Litton veritably wallowed and revelled in the lush and sensuous sound world of Helena, finding a muscularity to it but never letting it swamp singers or players alike. Sebastian Weigle brought a transparency to the score of Danae – rarely have I heard the opening of the final act played with such luminosity. And while Rosenkavalier got off to an unsteady start, control was quickly asserted, with each and every waltz theme given loving attention.

In all, an incredible four days. Yet it’s hard not to bemoan the quality of musical life beyond London. I know funding is different, but it’s a shame that our own government doesn’t recognise the value – both cultural and economic – of a serious commitment to the arts and arts education.

Similarly it’s hard not to wonder how artistically Berlin gets it so right, and more often than not our own opera houses – both of them – get it so, so wrong.




Served On A Silver Platter.

In BBC Proms, Classical Music, Opera, Review on August 31, 2014 at 12:28 pm

Review – Salome (BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, Saturday 30 August 2014)

Salome – Nina Stemme
Jokanaan – Samuel Youn
Burkhard Ulrich – Herod
Herodias – Doris Soffel
Narraboth – Thomas Blondelle
Herodias’s Page – Ronnita Miller

Deutsche Oper Berlin

Donald Runnicles (Conductor)

Den Kopf des Jochanaan.

The very first time that she magically floated that terrible line was the moment that Nina Stemme nailed her characterisation of Salome.

From her first appearance to what can only be described as her final – and visceral – transfiguration, Nina Stemme took the audience in the Royal Albert Hall on a singularly intense and gratifying journey – both emotional and musical. Indeed, as with her performance as Brunnhilde last year, Ms Stemme captivated the audience and kept them in rapt attention.

So often singers don’t so much sing the notes that Strauss committed to paper as charge through them. Notes are blurred, phrasing is unbalanced and often singers revert to performing parts of the role as if it were Sprechstimme.

Nina Stemme performed the role with impressive musical intelligence and authority. Each note, each phrase and each word was delivered with an attention to detail that created a sense of vocal spontaneity – the conversational tone that is so often sadly missing when others perform Strauss’ heroines. It was almost as if the ink was still wet on the page.

I’ve been lucky enough to see Ms Stemme perform a couple of times – including Ring cycles in San Francisco and at the Proms as well as in Tristan und Isolde at Glyndebourne and Covent Garden. And every time, vocally she went from strength to strength.

And as Salome she was simply resplendent. Totally secure throughout her range she demonstrated technique, a depth of tone and a range of colours that is simply enviable. She impressively demonstrated the ability to scale back her voice to almost a whisper while retaining the clarity and precision but when required she ramped her voice up in terms of both volume and range. In the final scene, she soared above the orchestra, filling the entire hall with thrilling sound.

It was difficult at times not to just focus all the attention on Nina Stemme, but she was for the most part supported by a very strong cast, especially the women. Doris Soffel simply reveled in the role of Herodias. Stalking across the stage, she delivered the role with confidence and finding a vocal timbre that perfectly suited Herodias’ atavistic and cruel nature. And it was good to see Ronnita Miller as her Page. I remember her from the San Francisco Ring as both Erda and Norn. She has a rich mezzo and there is a sensual growl in her lower register that is thrilling. I hope to see her on stage again soon. Hopefully in London if not Germany.

Samuel Youn was committed as Jokanaan, but personally I would have preferred more resonance and vocal security in his performance.

Both tenors – Burkhard Ulrich as Herod and the Narraboth of Thomas Blondelle – were impressive. Blondelle’s bright, bell-like voice was perfect for the pleading, love-lorn soldier and Ulrich compellingly inhabited the role of Herod both vocally and temperamentally.

I’ve not always been a fan of Donald Runnicles but he drew archly beautiful and characterful playing from the orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Opera is always tricky at the Proms but unerringly he balanced the demands of ensuring that Strauss’ overtly orchestral score in Salome was sufficiently transparent and ensuring that the singers could be heard. I would have preferred the Dance of the Seven Veils to have been ‘dirtier’ rather than ‘precise’ but it was a small price to pay for playing of this excellence.

And at the end, the audience showed their appreciation. First and foremost for Nina Stemme, but overall for a memorable and electrifying Salome.

A Glass Half Full

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on June 18, 2012 at 12:56 pm

Review – Arabella (Opéra Bastille, Sunday 17 June 2012)

Arabella – Renée Fleming
Mandryka – Michael Volle
Zdenka – Julia Kleiter
Adelaide – Doris Soffel
Graf Waldner – Kurt Rydl
Matteo – Joseph Kaiser
Iride Martinez – The Fiakermilli

Director – Marco Arturo Martelli
Lighting – Friedrich Eggert
Costumes – Dagmar Niefind

Orchestra of the Opera National de Paris
Conductor – Philippe Jordan

Twice in the course of Richard Strauss’ opera Arabella – his final collaboration with Hugo von Hoffmansthal – the protagonists make a reference to a glass of water. In the First Act Mandryka relates how a potential bride would offer a glass of water drawn from her father’s well and present it to her prospective husband, and in the Third Act Arabella offers him the said glass of water as an act of both forgiveness and acceptance.

If the water drawn was a reflection of this production, the glass would only have been half full.

A shame as a single element disappointed throughout – Philippe Jordan and the Orchestra of the Opera National de Paris.

Arabella is directly evolved from the lyricism of Der Rosenkavalier, Die Frau Ohne Schatten and Die Äegiptische Helena, the chamber music sensibilities of Ariadne auf Naxos and the more conversational style of Intermezzo.

Therefore to be successful, it has to be conducted with an understanding of all the elements that Strauss had reached at this stylistic crossroads – not only of the nuances in the orchestration and the instrumental colour with which the opera is richly imbued but just as importantly a sensitivity to the ebb and flow of the vocal line.

Only then can Arabella be done full justice.

At this particular performance, Philippe Jordan disappointingly did not deliver. Not only did he conduct with metronomic precision but his tempi always felt a fraction too fast. And he failed to draw the magnificent playing I am accustomed to from this orchestra. On the whole they were lacklustre with none of the depth or colour required in every Strauss opera.

And Jordan’s unsympathetic performance in the pit directly impacted on the singers at times.

Renée Fleming sang the title role. As I have said before Renée Fleming is one of the leading – if not pre-eminent – Strauss sopranos performing today. Over the last few years her voice has developed an even more beautiful and burnished tone without any sense of sacrifice in flexibility or evenness throughout her range. I think back most recently to her Ariadne in Baden Baden under Thielemann or her concert performance of the Vier Letzte Lieder with Eschenbach.

Clearly with a sensitive and intuitive partner in the pit, Ms Fleming is a formidable singer. However as Jordan failed to give her the space or opportunity to spin out this heroine’s lines it took a while for her to warm up. There were one or two moments very early on where as a result, I believe, of trying to get Jordan to be more expansive she unexpectedly over emphasised individual syllables. And some of those moments which demanded a greater freedom of tempo – I talk here of her duets with Zdenka and Mandryka in the First Act respectively and more crucially, in the close scene at Das war sehr gut, Mandryka – the magic was undermined. With a less accomplished singer those moments might well have been tarnished or lost altogether. Fortunately for the audience, Ms Fleming has the voice , technique, musicianship and natural affinity for Strauss to carry through. As a result her Arabella was marvellous.

Having seen Michael Volle as Kurwenal in Loy’s production of Tristan und Isolde for Covent Garden I was impressed by his Mandryka which was strong both vocally and character-wise. With his rich baritone he delivered a role of intelligence and musicianship and while he may have slightly tired towards the end, he was a suitably dramatic and vocal foil to Fleming’s Arabella.

Both Julia Kleiter and Joseph Kaiser are new singers to me but they performed outstandingly as Zdenka and Matteo respectively. Again, Jordan’s rushed tempi and anti-lyrical inflexibility caused Ms Kleiter to pinch a few of her higher notes but her voice has a bell-like silvery tone. Kaiser has a pleasing tenor with suitable heft. A future Bacchus perhaps? Arabella’s parents – Kurt Rydl and Doris Soffel – completed the central ensemble, giving these two characters who are more often than not simply two-dimensional that added depth and human side. Never have I heard Adelaide sound so weary as when she expresses disappointment in her husband to Mandryka. In a single moment. Outstanding.

The remaining cast were good, the only disappointment being the Fiakermilli of Iride Martinez. While she may have had the agility for the coloratura, her voice was simply too thin and at times not only pinched but awry of pitch as well.

Having seen what I believe to have been Marco Arturo Martelli’s Tristan und Isolde ‘in a box’ as it were in Dresden, I was not surprised that he placed the entire opera within a single set, relying on revolving walls to create the different scenes. It was a nice touch when they revolved revealing sky to imply a balcony or window, but in the ball scene the lighting was too simplistic. It reminded me more of the coloured block lighting used by department stores or bars to create a sense of ambience. And what a shame that the only scenic backdrop was in the final act.

I can never make up my mind with the current directorial affectation for onstage action before the opera proper starts. Sometimes it works, particularly in the case of an overture. Here it didn’t. Having lackeys remove furniture as the audience entered the auditorium lacked any impact as it was too drawn out. And why was nothing made of the increasingly large pile of bills on the table. Also, in the original aren’t the Waldner’s staying in a hotel in Vienna?

But most disappointing was the block – quite literally – of stairs at the end. It was almost as if they were an afterthought. I’m not asking for a sweeping staircase complete with ornate balustrade, but any sense of potential drama having Arabella come down this flight of stairs was lost.

Perhaps Arabella is slightly too intimate an opera for a stage the size of that at Opéra Bastille? At times it seemed that there were large expanses of empty space in an opera that is so often focused on one or two singers and that Martelli didn’t know how to move his singers across it. His use of alter-Arabellas at the end if the Second Act was almost inspired. But the revolving walls had me worried that the dancers would waltz into them or, considering there wasn’t enough depth, that they would careen into one another. Either plenty of practice or luck meant there were no collisions but I sensed more than a few near misses.

And one final distraction worth mentioning. I am pretty sure that I spied Peter Gelb in the audience. He took his seat as the orchestra started and I am pretty sure that The Sunday Times critic Hugh Canning was trying to spot if he had returned after the interval. He didn’t. Perhaps he realised this production of Arabella wasn’t for his own House or he was on the lookout for a new baton for the Met.

Ultimately this production of Arabella belonged to the singers. Their musicianship and sense of ensemble ensured that their performances were incredibly strong. The few fault lines that did appear momentarily in their performances had more to do with what was – or was not – going on in the pit. Jordan was single-mindedly an unsympathetic Straussian from beginning to end, never once revelling in the wonderful lyricism that Richard Strauss had written on every single page of this score.

So if Gelb was indeed looking for a future baton, Jordan did himself no favours with this performance.


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

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