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Posts Tagged ‘Nina Stemme’

Elektra-fied

In Classical Music, Opera, Richard Strauss on May 2, 2016 at 11:15 am

 

Review – Elektra (Metropolitan Opera HD Live Broadcast, Saturday 30 April 2016)

Elektra – Nina Stemme
Chrysothemis – Adrienne Pieczonka
Klytmänestra – Waltraud Meier
Orest – Eric Owens
Aegisth – Burkhard Ulrich
Fifth Maid – Roberta Alexander

Director – Patrice Chereau/Vincent Huguet
Set Designer – Richard Peduzzi
Costume Designer – Caroline de Vivaise
Lighting Designer– Dominique Bruguière

Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera
Esa-Pekka Salonen (Conductor)

It’s rare to get that feeling, when attending an opera or a concert, that you are witnessing greatness. Even rarer to think you are witnessing history. And almost impossible to consider it happening over a live HD broadcast.

The Metropolitan Opera’ s production of Elektra managed all three. Perfectly.

There was literally a musical convergence – an alignment of incredible talent, inspired staging and direction and outstanding music making. And the gravitational force that pulled it all together was Nina Stemme. And she has done this before – at the Proms.

This Elektra undoubtedly establishes her as one of the greatest dramatic sopranos ever. It was a performance of complete commitment and with the close-up afforded by the broadcast, of super-human, searing intensity. Vocally she was superb and compelling, creating emotional shock wave after shock wave, portraying Elektra with a full spectrum of conflicted feelings – revenge, love, hope and despair. Her voice has never sounded better, deploying a full range of colour and dynamics combined with astute musical intelligence in terms of phrasing, articulation and most importantly, a focus on the words.

As her sister, I can think of no better Chrysothemis than Adrienne Pieczonka. Her music is as difficult and formidable as her sister’s. It requires a soprano who can quite literally soar above the orchestra and Ms Pieczonka was vocally resplendent. Her soprano gleamed and shone brightly, but she tempered it brilliantly, shading the music to truly reflect this character’s vulnerability.

Waltraud Meier completed the trio of women of House Atreus. This was not a queen racked by fear and guilt – well not all the time – but one very much in control and unrepentant. It built on her portrayal in Dresden. From her first entrance, striding onto the stage, to the moment when her maid gives her the letter about Orest, Meier created a role that was more even in its emotional spectrum rather than relying on and wallowing in extremity. The humanity of her relationship with Elektra – stroking her hair as if reliving happier times – was especially poignant. Her was also a masterclass in the marriage of music, meaning and diction. Each phrase perfectly placed, every word loaded with emotion.

The men – Orest and Aegisth – were brilliantly supportive of the three women. Owens’ detachment seemed fitting but did mean than vocally he wasn’t as compelling as the Orest of the Tobias Lehrer I recently heard in Berlin.

But the surprise of the production was the Fifth Maid of none other than Roberta Alexander. I did not realise it was Ms Alexander until after the broadcast, but from her very first note it was a performance that made everyone sit up and listen. There was a keenness and precision to her portrayal the likes of which I’ve not witnessed in this role before.

Chereau’s production – first seen in Aix – only made me wish that I had seen it live. It also made me realise, at a time when good directors seem to be lacking, we have lost someone of incredible talent and insight.

This was an Elektra full of humanity and colour – finally an Elektra not deluged in blacks and greys. His attention to detail, not only of each character but how they related to and acted with each other also stood out. How a servant stepped intervened to protect Ms Alexander’s Fifth Maid. How the maids doubled as the Queen’s advisers. The desperate attention Chrysothemis paid to the young man. And at the end, Orest’s departure and Elektra’s retreat into a catatonic state.

Theirs wasn’t a victory but total and utter defeat.

While it’s hard to gauge the orchestra filtered through HD, they undoubtedly were magnificent, not for the lush to harsh sounds they produced as required but for the way they clearly responded to Salonen in the pit. His conducting brought out the very best of the score from its rhythmic vitality to its surging romanticism.

Even thousands of miles away, sitting in the dark, this Elektra was a complete privilege.

2014 – Birthdays, booing and Bach. More and less.

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on January 5, 2015 at 12:09 pm

I’d like to start by thanking everyone who visits my blog. It started as a bit of an experiment and when I started writing this in 2011, I didn’t think it would last. Reading back over past entries reminds me some of the great – and not so great – performances I have attended, recordings I have listened to and general comments on aspects of classical music that have either intrigued me or irked me.

So thank you all.

In 2014, it felt like I attended fewer performances in 2014, and wrote less that in the previous year but in truth it seems that isn’t true.

The year began and ended with two performances that I don’t think I will ever forget. In January, Elektra with Evelyn Herlitzius in Dresden to mark the 150th anniversary of Richard Strauss’ birth; and just a few weeks ago, an emotionally wrenching Tristan und Isolde with Nina Stemme. On both occasions the outstanding quality of the singing, the playing and the production all came together perfectly. Having admired her as The Dyer’s Wife in FroSch, Herlitzius’ Elektra was a masterful and nuanced characterization combined with a vocal performance that took big risks which paid off. And with Anne Schwanewilms as Chrysosthemis, Waltraud Meier as Klytämnestra and Thielemann in the pit drawing some beautiful playing from the Sächsischer Staatskapelle Dresden it was an unforgettable evening. I saw the Loy production of Tristan und Isolde when it premiered five years ago, and it remains on of my favourite productions. Nina Stemme was superlative as the Irish princess, and since 2009 it’s almost as if the music and Isolde herself have become fused into Stemme’s very bones. I was transfixed by her performance and again she was supported by an incredible cast including Stephen Gould and Sarah Connolly.

Nina Stemme also delivered a stunning performance as Salome at the Proms as part of the BBC’s rather half-hearted Strauss celebration. On the following night, Christine Goerke took to the stage as Elektra, but I admit I remain to be wholly convinced.

Staying with Richard Strauss, I managed to see three – well two and a half – performances of Der Rosenkavalier. Over and above all the fuss about the Glyndebourne production, I was not overly impressed. Ticciati’s colourless and rhythmically bland conducting failed to ignite despite some superlative playing by the LSO, and he was not helped by the musically-wan performances of Kate Royal and Tara Erraught. But perhaps it was simply because the other performances remain indelibly etched on my memory. I was incredibly privileged to attend two performances featuring Anne Schwanewilms and Sarah Connolly at the Barbican and then Soile Isokoski and Alice Coote in Birmingham. These beautifully poised, emotionally intense performances were conducted by Sir Mark Elder and Andris Nelsons respectively. It was hard to believe that it was the first complete performance of the opera in Birmingham but it reminds me that musical life outside London remains vibrant. Opera North ended their Ring cycle with incredible aplomb and authority in the summer. While there were inevitably some weak moments, I look forward to the complete cycle. Welsh National Opera brought Moses und Aron to Covent Garden, led by a forthright performance in the title role by John Tomlinson, most recently Covent Garden’s King Marke and Glyndebourne’s revival of Rinaldo demonstrated why Iestyn Davies is one of the most talented countertenors performing today. His performance of Cara sposa was heartrending.

Staying with baroque opera, Joyce DiDonato continued to wow and amaze with a stunning performance as Handel’s Alcina as part of her Barbican residency. Bedecked in what must surely now be ‘signature’ Vivienne Westwood, she was so successful in creating a flesh and blood sorceress, that her Alcina became more anti-heroine than villainess. At the beginning of the year, Francesco Bartolomeno Conti’s L’Issipile was given a long overdue airing. All credit to Flavio Ferri-Benedetti for his painstaking research and the stellar performances by Lucy Crowe, Diana Montague and Lawrence Zazzo who brought Conti’s music to life. I believe that we can expect a recording this year so keep an eye out as this opera contains some stunning music.

The Rameau Project – with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment – continued their ambition to performance this composers stage works with performances of Zaïs, Pigmalion and Anacréon to the Southbank together with dancers from Les Plaisirs de Nations. Their combination of intellectual curiosity and a palpable passion for Rameau’s music made for two evenings of fantastic music making. And at the Wannamaker Playhouse, the Royal Opera House breathed life into Cavalli’s L’Ormindo. With a cast including Samuel Boden, Ed Lyons, Susanna Hurrell, Rachel Kelly and Joélle Harvey, the high standard of the music performances under Christian Curnyn were matched by Kasper Holten’s well-crafted production.

Sadly, the main stage at Covent Garden didn’t always show as much wit, style or even intelligence. Standout productions of Tristan und Isolde, and a simply overwhelming Dialogues des Carmélites were in sharp relief to the rest of the season. In terms of Strauss, Holten gave us the La Scala production of Die Frau ohne Schatten. At the time I remember being so very excited by the prospect of this production and the cast. But as I left the performance, I remember feeling a sense of “premature expectation”. Neither cast nor production was consistently strong and I wish that Holten had imported his own production from Copenhagen.

The much anticipated Maria Stuarda with Joyce DiDonato and Carmen Giannattasio was musically beyond reproach but the audience – including myself – were torn by the production by Moshe Leiser & Patrice Caurier. I thought the production was flawed, as did others in the house that resorted to booing. I’ve nothing against booing, but it seems to have become a house staple on Bow Street. The shocking irreverence that Martin Kušej showed for Mozart’s Idomeneo solicited an even angrier response from the audience. And on that occasion I can’t blame them. Kušej showed scant regard for Mozart’s music, the narrative or the intent of this opera. I hope that he doesn’t return to Covent Garden until he has learned his trade. Holten’s own Don Giovanni – replacing Francesca Zambello’s lackluster production – was almost perfect. A strong cast, led by Mariusz Kwiecień was marred by his decision to cut the final sextet. I can’t deny the emotional impact created by Kwiecień’s Don left alone at the end, but it unbalanced the opera. I due Foscari might have provided a lightning rod for Domingo fans and non-fans alike but it gave the rest of us an opportunity to hear a rarely performed Verdi opera. Thaddeus Strassberger’s double debut felt slightly unfinished and the ‘mad tableaux’ at the end somewhat misplaced. But it was nothing compared to his production of Glare a few weeks later in the Linbury. I didn’t write about it at the time – I couldn’t find the right words – but I still feel that the violence against women that it portrayed was a step too far and completely undermined the opera itself.

In terms of new works, I saw ROH’s Quartett and ENO’s Thebans. Luca Francesconi is, without doubt, a smart composer. Creating layers of sound, this opera can only be described – both narratively and musically – as brutal. Julian Anderson’s Thebans by contrast, failed to pack a consistent punch. Indeed, both operas displayed the same weakness – how to create spans of music that knit together structurally, rather than a series of juxtaposed set pieces.

And finally, a special mention to the Royal College of Music for their smart and inspired production of Die Zauberflöte. A promising ensemble of soloists demonstrated that we have – in the wings – some exciting new voices to be heard.

2014 was also the year I made the decision to listen to all Bach’s cantatas. I admit that it’s been while since I wrote anything. That’s not for wont of listening to them, but rather finding the time. But I am determined to get beyond 1714 in 2015.

In terms of recordings, recital discs by Bejun Mehta and Philippe Jaroussky stood out for me as did Teodor Currentzis’ Le nozze di Figaro. His over-intellectualised approach occasionally intruded but there is no doubting his enthusiasm and passion for Mozart. Whilst not all the singers sound entirely convincing, Currentzis’ approach is invigorating.

But there are three discs that I return to regularly. First, Marina Rebeka’s Mozart recital disc. Her warm yet flexible soprano is well-matched to Mozart’s music and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic under Speranza Scapucci play with grace. Carolyn Sampson produced a recital based around Eighteenth Century French soprano Marie Fel and it is a masterpiece both in terms of programming and performance. Composers from Mondonville to Rousseau blow the cobwebs of any thought that French music of this period was “all the same” but it is her performance of Rameau’s Tristes apprêts that is worth the price of the disc alone.

And especial mention must go to Anna Bonitatibus and her inspired recital built around Queen Semiramis. This is simply a joyous album featuring composers that might not be all that famous, but demonstrate that there is still plenty of excellent music waiting to be discovered. My favourite? Traetta’s Il pastor se torna aprile. With its violin obbligato and swagger you would almost believe its Mozart.

And for 2015? Looking at my pile of tickets, I didn’t realise I had so many to look forward to. First out of the gate is L’Orfeo at the Roundhouse.

But I daren’t say too much, I don’t think I want to suffer from “premature expectation again”.

So it only leaves me to wish you all a (belated) Happy New Year. May 2015 bring you much joy and good music.

Thank you for reading.

Mass Transfiguration

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on December 10, 2014 at 6:29 pm

Review – Tristan und Isolde (Royal Opera House, Friday 5 December 2014)

Tristan – Stephen Gould
Isolde – Nina Stemme
Brangäne – Sarah Connolly
Kurwenal – Iain Paterson
King Marke – John Tomlinson
Sailor – Ed Lyon
Melot – Neal Cooper
Shepherd – Graham Clark
Steersman – Yuriy Yurchuk

Director – Christof Loy
Associate Director – Julia Burbach
Designs – JohannesLeiacker
Lighting Design – Olaf Winter

Royal Opera House Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Antonio Pappano (Conductor)

Transfiguration (Def)
Pronunciation: /ˌtransfɪɡəˈreɪʃ(ə)n, ˌtrɑːns-, -ɡjʊr-, -nz-/

Meaning: “A complete change of form or appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state.”

The current revival of Tristan und Isolde is missing one thing. The programme should carry a health warning.

It’s been a while since I have left a production of such searing intensity that my senses were overloaded. And despite having seen the original production in 2009 – and loved it back then – nothing prepared me for the emotional and musical impact created that evening.

And I don’t believe I was the only one. While I seriously did think that Nina Stemme as Isolde was singing just for me – something I experienced when I saw her sing Brunnhilde at the Proms – I am sure that her performance of the Irish Princess was as overwhelming for the majority of the people sitting in Covent Garden that night.

It’s hard not to speak just of Nina Stemme’s performance but – as with the Berlin Ring cycle in 2012 – she was part of a cast that was from top to bottom, superlative.

Tristan is a challenging role but Stephen Gould’s performance was one of the most impressive I have heard in a long time. Vocally robust, as well as having the necessary heft and stamina, he also infused his singing with a musically intelligent use of colour and dynamic range. His Third Act monologue was beautifully paced and full of the dramatic impetus that is sometimes lacking in singers and in the Second Act he was wonderfully in sync with Stemme throughout.

As his companion Iain Paterson was equally impressive. His ‘brag’ in the opening act had the necessary balance of swagger and charm and his investment in making Kurwenal a believable character rather than a simple cypher was compelling at the opening of the Third Act as he moved from resignation and remorse to ultimately love and fealty even in death.

While some did not admire John Tomlinson’s King Marke, I was completely mesmerized. I have to admit if there’s a moment when my mind is apt to wander it is usually at the end of the Second Act when the King discovers the betrayal.

Not on this occasion. While his voice doesn’t necessarily have the range or lustre that it once had, there was an innate musicianship to Tomlinson’s performance and portrayal that made the King – for me – a human being.

And before we get to Isolde and her maid, a special mention of Ed Lyon. Why isn’t he seen on Covent Garden’s main stage more often. His lustrous tenor sailed out across the auditorium, beautifully clear and shaped. And in the smaller support roles, Neal Cooper as Melot as well as Graham Clark and Yuriy Yurchuk made very strong impressions.

Sarah Connolly is one of those singers who – no matter the role – pours her heart, soul and incredible talent into it. Alongside her Medea and her Octavian, her Brangane was no exception. I am currently listening to her new recording of Elgar’s Sea Pictures (high recommended) and her voice has developed a noticeably richer, deeper hue that was very much in evidence on stage as well. She matched her Isolde note for note, mood for mood in the First Act, and her warnings during the lovers’ tryst soared over the orchestra from the back of the stage.

But of course it was Nina Stemme’s Isolde that dominated. She has grown in the role since 2009, there is a new depth to her hatred as well as her passion around which is wrapped the most mesmerizing – almost hypnotic – singing, not only in terms of quality and richness but also in terms of characterization. Her curse reminded me of the white heat she generated in the trio of Gotterdammerung, but it was her Liebestod – a culmination of the emotional intensity of the entire evening – that left everything in its wake. And how wonderfully she floated the closing phrase.

Magical.

I read recently that Loy didn’t have Isolde die at the end, but rather she returns to her ordinary life with King Marke. And as Isolde slowly slid into that chair, I definitely felt that sense of resignation and nostalgia for a love lost and irreplaceable.

And I admit I love Loy’s production – the way he creates two very different worlds, bound together by an incredible sense of tension. He captures perfectly the simple fact that when you are in love, nothing else – not the world around you – matters. The life that surrounds a couple in love seems slower, more muted. But at the same time he creates a real sense of emotional tension in the small gestures. The almost tangible “buttoned-up” feeling he created – so cleverly in such an open space – could do nothing but explode with the ferocity of their first embrace. The way Stemme portrayed Isolde with almost child-like naiveté filled with overwhelming excitement as she spoke to Brangane as the Second Act opened. Setting the table. The way that, as they moved into the duet proper, Tristan and Isolde moved slowly together, hands touching first before holding one another.

Loy’s production brings Tristan und Isolde into the real world, amplifying emotions and turmoil that most people would fear to feel or express. I sincerely hope that – as the BBC don’t seem to be broadcasting it on BBC Four despite an apparent new commitment to the arts – Covent Garden are taking the opportunity to film this production for posterity.

And Pappano directed the orchestra with incredible fervor. The tempo at which he too the opening Prelude set the tenor for the entire opera. There was a noticeable ferocity to the playing in the First Act that was beautifully counterbalanced by the luxuriant sound world he created for the Second. And in the final Act, he slowly built on the bleak, drained sound created in the orchestra for Tristan’s monologue to created crashing waves of glorious – almost technicolour – sound for those closing moments.

And as the music slowly faded, I have no doubt that it was a performance that quite literally transfigured many of the people who had witnessed it.

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.

2013 – Bicentenaries, belles and bigots.

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on January 7, 2014 at 3:21 pm

2013 was a year of some glorious music making, some not so glorious productions and, as ever, some rather silly comments and furtive defensive statements.

In the bicentenary year of Wagner and Verdi, opera houses and concert halls were awash with their music. But while it seems that in this two horse race, the master of Green Hill won out against the man from Busseto ultimately all music lovers were amply rewarded.

All credit must go to the organisers of Wagner 200 for creating a year-long celebration of Wagner – not only in terms of performances but also in terms of lectures, screenings and masterclasses. While the opening concert didn’t have quite the ‘bang’ that it needed there is no doubt in my mind that one of the final events of the year – a concert performance of Act Two of Tristan und Isolde – was magnificent. Sadly I never found time to write my attendance up but suffice it to say that after a lukewarm Schubert “Unfinished”, Daniel Harding ramped up the emotional temperature after the interval. Iréne Theorin, a last minute replacement for Katarina Dalayman, was in my opinion magnificent in the role. Vocally she imbued Isolde not only with heft but – when required – a real sense of the delicacy of the vocal line. And yet it was Matti Salminen as King Marke who stood out on the evening. Having seen him sing this role a number of times his portrayal and interpretation of the role remains second to none.

I hope that having established itself as a brand, Wagner 200 continues to create events and support concerts beyond last year.

A performance of a different sort was delivered by Simon Callow with his own very personal tribute to Wagner. Well-researched and performed from the heart, it reminded us all of Wagner the man, the musician and why some of us love him.

But if there was one Wagner performance that was perfection then it was Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin’s Ring cycle at the Proms. Words cannot do the cycle justice. The cast were – almost to a man and woman – perfectly cast and of course Nina Stemme left the entire audience in awe at the very end. And marshaling the vocal and orchestral forces from the podium, Maestro Barenboim demonstrated why he is one of the leading, if not leading, Wagnerian and operatic conductors performing today. And special mention must be made of Mihoko Fujimura’s Brangäne in the Tristan und Isolde that was sandwiched into the Ring cycle.

In terms of Verdi, ENO gave us Konwitschny’s thought provoking and well performed La Traviata but it was Covent Garden’s Les Vêpres Siciliennes that proved to be my Verdian highlight. Bedevilled with casting problems, Stefan Herheim’s first production in the UK was a smart and at times incisive retelling of this typically complicated Verdian love story. Lianna Haroutounian was a brave and – despite being a last minute booking – vocally secure Hélène but it was Michael Volle as de Monfort who dominated the performances with his great combination of vocal confidence and brilliant acting. This was Covent Garden’s first run of Vêpres and I do hope it won’t be its last.

But of all the productions I saw this year it was a new opera that left the greatest mark. George Benjamin’s Written on Skin was a tour de force both musically and vocally. The cast, the brilliant Christopher Purves, the dazzling Barbara Hannigan and the beguiling Bejun Mehta created true drama on stage, aided and abetted by Katie Mitchell’s intelligent and thought-provoking production. Again, I hope it becomes a regular in ROH’s repertoire.

ENO continued to both amaze and frustrate. The much-expected Medea featuring Sarah Connolly in the title role and directed by David McVicar, exceeded expectations. Once again, ENO showed that with the right casting and director, French baroque opera can be as compelling and gripping as more commonly performed operas. I sincerely hope that John Berry continues to champion opera from this genre, and I am pleased that he has finally seen sense and we will start to see live broadcasts from the London Coliseum into cinemas.

Opera North continued with their own Ring cycle but sadly their Siegfried continued to suffer from casting issues first heard in its Die Walküre the previous year. Their ambition to perform the Ring singly and then as a complete cycle at a later date, is laudable and I sincerely hope that their forthcoming Götterdämmerung fields a stronger, more musically confident final cast.

In advance of the 150th celebration in 2014, Richard Strauss features on my highlights of 2013. Covent Garden’s Elektra was a highlight not so much for Christine Goerke in the title role but for Adrianne Pieczonka as her troubled sister. I said it at the time but I cannot understand why Ms Pieczonka is not heard more often in the UK. She is one of the leading Straussian’s performing today – her performance as the Kaiserin in Munich’s production of Die Frau ohne Schatten was incredible and it is a shame that she hasn’t been cast in this year’s Claus Guth production in London. Similarly I was astonished to discover when attending the Met’s production of FroSch that it was Anne Schwanewilm’s debut. I only hope that her vocally mesmerizing performance and magnetic characterization as the Kaiserin will see her invited back to New York more often.

In terms of performances three truly stood out in 2013.

First and foremost was Joyce DiDonato’s concert performance of her recital disc Drama Queens. I can’t think of a performer today who not only has breathless technique and stunning musical sensitivity and intelligence but also an infectious joie de vivre in performance. The only sad thing is that Ms DiDonato’s performance on stage and in concert are so brilliant and memorable that the space between them always seems agonizingly long.

Karita Matilla gave a blood curdling performance of the final scene from Salome in the inaugural The Rest Of Noise concert. After a shaking start in the preceding lieder, Ms Matilla gave ample notice why she remains one of the leading character sopranos. Not only did she totally inhabit the character but rarely for sopranos these days, she took risks with her voice, sacrificing beauty of tone to convey Salome’s emotional torment. Ms Matilla’s performance was “shock and awe” Strauss-style and superb.

And closing the year in musical style were Sonia Prina and Ensemble Claudiana at Wigmore Hall. A celebration of the music written by Handel for Senesino, Ms Prina and her merry band delivered high quality musicianship, vocal splendor and verve in spades.

And of all the recital discs that I have listened to this year, one remains in ever constant play – the disc of early classical arias by countertenor David Hansen. He might not technically be a “belle” although he is distractingly handsome, but in a world that sometimes feels swamped by similar sounding countertenors, Hansen cuts above many of the others not only in terms of the beauty of his voice and its incredibly range, but also the depth of interpretation in each of the arias. Here’s hoping he makes it to London very soon.

Sadly 2013 wasn’t all great. Bar the ridiculous and demeaning comments by the Telegraph’s Arts Editor Sarah Crompton and Maria Miller’s naïve “valuation” of culture in the UK, Putin’s homophobic savagery fell on the deaf ears of Russia’s conductors and performers. Indeed it was only when pushed into a corner that the likes of Gergiev and Anna Netrebko were finally forced into issuing the blandest of statements, thereby confirming that they were both unwilling to bite the hand of the dictator who feeds them.

A shame.

So what of 2014? Well clearly the 150th anniversary of the birth of Richard Strauss will ensure that he is heard in many a concert hall and on stage. Personally I am off to Dresden for a new production of Elektra where the three leading ladies are Evelyn Herlitzius, Anne Schwanewilms and Waltraud Meier with René Pape as Orest and then to Guth’s FroSch at Covent Garden. Staying in London I am looking forward to Holten’s production of Don Giovanni, Richard Jones’ take on Rodelinda and Cavalli’s L’Ormindo at the new theatre at The Globe. And of course a flurry of concerts with the likes of Anne Hallenberg, Soile Isokoski, Angelika Kirchschlager and Eva-Maria Westbroek. Plans for trips abroad are in the planning.

So it only leaves me to thank one and all for reading this blog. I hope it has been as much fun reading it as it has been writing it.

I wish you all a musically fulfilling and thought-provoking 2014.

Stemme Shrinks Then Soars

In BBC Proms, Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on July 29, 2013 at 8:58 am

Review – Götterdämmerung (BBC Proms, Sunday 28 July 2013)

Brünnhilde – Nina Stemme
Siegfried – Andreas Schager
Hagen – Mikhail Petrenko
Gunther – Gerd Grochowski
Gutrune & Third Norn – Anna Samuil
Waltraute & Second Norn – Waltraud Meier
First Norn – Margarita Nekrasova
Alberich – Johannes Martin Kränzle
Woglinde – Aga Mikolaj
Wellgunde – Maria Gortsevskaya
Flosshilde – Anna Lapkovskaja

Royal Opera Chorus
Staatskapelle Berlin

Daniel Barenboim (Conductor)

Nina Stemme performed a magic trick last night – over and above her stunning performance and that of her colleagues.

The Swedish soprano managed to shrink the Royal Albert Hall so that over five thousand people believed that they were alone with her and she was singing just to them.

Astounding.

There aren’t words to adequately describe this performance of Götterdämmerung. Or indeed the entire cycle brought to London by Daniel Barenboim and the Berlin Staatskapelle.

From the opening bars of Das Rheingold, through the drama of Die Walküre and the closing ecstasy of Siegfried to the final Immolation Scene last night, this is a cycle that stands comparison with the greatest. In fact, personally it surpasses all too many of them.

A constant throughout the four nights was the superlative playing of the Berlin Staatskapelle. Never have I heard such precise yet flexible playing. Every note was imbued with colour, every phrase articulated to perfection, every dynamic not only realized but also chased down with unerring precision. And if the drama was played out in front of them, then the players realized the drama themselves. Last night alone I watched as the clarinetists swayed, as the Second Violins dug deeper than ever before as Barenboim urged them to ever grittier playing the Siegfried’s Funeral March, as the brass lit up the entire hall with some of the most accomplished, and assured ensemble and solo playing I have every heard.

Yet at no point did the orchestral overpower the singers. Marshalled to perfection, under Barenboim’s leadership they were the singers’ willing friends, lovers and accomplices throughout. No detail was too small to be brought to the fore, no texture too inconsequential to highlight. Lavish attention was paid to the inner detail of Wagner’s music, no section rushed through or simply played to get to the next tableau. For example the transition to Siegfried’s Rhine Journey was full of the expected panache and arrogance of youth, but the transition back before the incredible confrontation of Stemme and Meier managed to convey the familial gloom that was about to descend.

Rising above the Staatskapelle was a cast of singers that was nothing short of the perfect ensemble.

The Rhinemaidens – Aga Mikolaj, Maria Gortsevskaya and Anna Lapkovskaja – made a welcome return to the stage, delighting with their finely crafted ensemble singing. Margarita Nekrasova’s First Norn alongside her sisters was in possession of a darkly hued voice perfectly suited to the role and her attention to the words was telling.

Johannes Martin Kränzle also returned as Alberich for the dream sequence at the opening of the Second Act. The return of so many of the singers in the same roles delivered in spades in terms of characterisation. Kränzle‘s Alberich of the final opera in the quartet was a Nibelung that had surpassed greed and revenge and had reached desperation.

Anna Samuil improved on her initial outing as Freia as both the Third North and Gutrune. While her voice retained a slightly brittle and brassy tone and ventured a little wayward above the stave, her performance – particularly as she awaited Siegfried’s return – as the tragic Gibichung sister was never anything less than committed. And as her brother, Gerd Grochowski’s Gunther balanced some fine singing with strong acting skills.

What Mikhail Petrenko’s Hagen may have very occasionally lacked in heft he made up for in the malevolence of his characterization. Like Terfel in Die Walküre, Petrenko deployed his stage whisper with chilling effect and combined with his fine ability to sneer through his words, he made his Hagen eminently believable and dislikeable. And ranged alongside him as his cohorts and conspirators, the excellent chorus of the Royal Opera House.

But what a difference a Siegfried can make, and in Andreas Schager I think we finally have a Siegfried of note. Schager is the man who stepped into Barenboim’s Ring when the contracted Siegfried – Lance Ryan – did not turn up.

Lucky for us Schager set his watch correctly.

From the get go this was a Siegfried to be reckoned with. Vocally stunning til the end, Schager was not only technically stunning, but he also possesses a clear, bright tenor voice, burnished and even and – most importantly – able to deliver the broadest dynamic range with any drop in the quality of his singing. From his opening duet with Nina Stemme to his final monologue, Schager was Siegfried and this was only made more pronounced by his excellent acting. This was a Siegfried with swagger, exuberance and more than a little naïve arrogance.

So finally to the two leading ladies.

First, Waltraud Meier. I still remember her Ortrud in Munich and here, both as Waltraute and Second Norn, she once again demonstrated that she is, quite simply, a singer of incredible distinction, experience and authority with a voice that literally shines. And the audience showed their appreciation and veneration for Ms Meier at the end. Waltraute might be a small role but in Waltraud Meier it had both stature and nobility.

And Nina Stemme? Over the course of the cycle – from the exuberance of her opening Hojotoho in Die Walküre to her final Selig grüsst dich dein Weib! – this magnificent soprano took the entire audience on Brünnhilde’s journey from Immortal Warrior to Woman.

Stemme’s performance had everything. Vocally secure throughout, there was a steely sheen and gloss combined with a depth and weight in her voice that carried her both above and through the orchestra. And it was a Brünnhilde of great subtlety. Stemme displayed a stunning control of both dynamic range and colour that was thrilling. Her sense of horror at the end of the First Act was nothing compared to the white-hot rage as she realizes her deception by Siegfried and the resultant blood-curdling trio as she exacts her revenge. And all delivered with such passion, vitality and breadth of colour that the audience collectively held its breath.

But nothing prepared the audience for the final scene. Here the sweep of grandeur of Stemme’s voice, her total commitment, the sense not only of finality, but both justice and love was wrapped up in the most incredible Immolation scene ever heard.

And what a dramatic coup – placing her above the orchestra, above the audience. Amazing.

Her success was evident in the roar of approval from the audience. It was nothing short of any shout than can be heard in any sports stadium.

Finally to Daniel Barenboim. Genius. Simply genius.

Over four nights he brought Wagner’s music to life, painting a succession of scenes in both words and sound that was nothing short of perfection. And his short speech at the end, after all the cheering, was brilliant.

And his clear love of the Ring cycle was evident throughout. Not in the fact that he didn’t always need the score; or that he energetically exhorted the orchestra to dig deeper and deeper into the music; or that he coaxed and directed the singers, shaping their phrases with his gestures.

No. It was in those moments when he stood back against the podium and let the music sing out for itself.

This was a Ring cycle not of note but of history. And to be part of it was more than exhilarating. Or exciting. Or momentous.

It was humbling.

Pseudo Siegfried

In BBC Proms, Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on July 27, 2013 at 10:26 am

Review – Siegfried (BBC Prom, Friday 26 July 2013)

Siegfried – Lance Ryan
Brünnhilde – Nina Stemme
Wanderer – Terje Stensvold
Mime – Peter Bronder
Alberich – Johannes Martin Kränzle
Fafner – Eric Halfvarson
Woodbird – Rinnat Moriah
Erda – Anna Larsson

Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (Conductor)

I suppose if I had paid attention at school, the law of statistics – or was it probability – would have told me that things cannot remain constant.

After an excellent Das Rheingold and a white hot Die Walküre that something had to give. It was also interesting to note that after the crush of the first two operas, there were noticeably a few empty seats. Personally I struggle with Siegfried at the best of times and it’s good to know that perhaps I am not alone.

That something was Siegfried. Literally.

That is not to say that Lance Ryan wasn’t a competent and in some parts, a formidable Siegfried – and perhaps it was the unforgiving acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall at times – but it wasn’t a consistent Siegfried.

He clearly has the vocal range for the role and there were moments in the Second and Third Act where he sang with both great authority and eloquence. Daß der mein Vater nicht ist was beautifully delivered as was his monologue before the appearance of Brünnhilde. And dramatically there were some telling moments – for example his confrontation with the Wanderer. But in the First Act and the final duet with Nina Stemme it wasn’t so much the strain of singing above the orchestra as the lack of heft and in some places – the Forging Song –it was very noticeable. Indeed there were times when Ryan didn’t seem able to follow what Barenboim was clearly seeking from him.

I am in sure in an opera house, with the orchestra in the pit, Ryan’s Siegfried is the whole package, but while in South Kensington it was both compelling and well acted, vocally it lacked that vital sheen and depth.

And just a note here on the acting. It faltered in Das Rheingold but in both Die Walküre and Siegfried the singers have literally inhabited the stage.

Barenboim drew some wonderful singing from the rest of the cast. The Mime of Peter Bronder might have fared better with stronger vocal characterisation and there were moments when I almost felt like he was shouting to be heard, but both Johannes Martin Kränzle as Alberich and the Fafner of Eric Halfvarson continued their strong performances from the opening opera of the quartet. Similarly, Terje Stensvold’s Wanderer was incredibly strong – both vocally and dramatically. His performance oozed a real sense of experience.

Anna Larsson returned as Erda sans the excessive vibrato of Das Rheingold and delivered the Earth Goddess with deep and velvety authority and the Woodbird of Rinnat Moriah was a delight. Perched at the top of the hall, her bright soprano literally shone and floated and whereas it is quite commons for the Woodbird to sound rushed, Barenboim indeed expertly made it all sound fluid, relaxed and birdlike without halting or slowly the tempo.

And Nina Stemme continued to enthrall the audience and delivered an incredibly strong, vocally secure and impressive Brünnhilde in the final act. She commands the stage as ever from her first appearance. It has been a long time since I have heard the Siegfried Brünnhilde sung with such a range of emotion and colour.

As ever Barenboim drew some incredible playing from the Staatskapelle Berlin. I have never heard the horn solo – or any of the instrumental solos in Siegfried – played with such aplomb and beauty. The brass were particularly impressive and I have never heard any performance where the players and conductor have created so many different colours and hues. The opening, so expertly controlled by Barenboim in terms of dynamics and tempo was chilling but it was the playing in the final scenes – Barenboim almost up from the podium to exhort the brass to ever greater brilliance – that was simply astounding.

The combination of Barenboim, the Staatskapelle and a cast including Stemme, Waltraud Meier and Mikhail Petrenko promises an incredible end to the cycle on Sunday with Götterdämmerung.

O hehrstes Wunder!

In BBC Proms, Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on July 24, 2013 at 10:46 am

Review – Die Walküre (BBC Prom – Tuesday 23 July 2013)

Wotan – Bryn Terfel
Brünnhilde – Nina Stemme
Siegmund – Simon O’Neill
Sieglinde – Anja Kampe
Hunding – Eric Halfvarson
Fricka – Ekaterina Gubanova
Gerhilde – Sonja Mühleck soprano
Ortlinde – Carola Höhn
Waltraute – Ivonne Fuchs
Schwertleite – Anaïk Morel
Helmwige – Susan Foster
Siegrune – Leann Sandel-Pantaleo
Grimgerde – Anna Lapkovskaja
Rossweisse – Simone Schröder

Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (Conductor)

Sieglinde’s O hehrstes Wunder said it all.

On the strength of the first two performances and if the BBC is smart it will find a way to issue this Prom Ring cycle on CD or download.

Clearly Das Rheingold was simply the warm-up because on the second night of the BBC Proms’ first ever complete Ring cycle, Daniel Barenboim, a second-to-none cast and the Staatskapelle Berlin delivered a Die Walküre of such intensity that I haven’t personally experienced either on stage or in concert performance.

The quality of the performances, the playing and the acting on that limited stage all came together in a perfect moment.

It brought back memories of that night in 2005 and a single, isolated performance of Die Walküre. However the emotional intensity of the Berliners performance exceeded even the emotional temperature of that evening.

And Bryn Terfel sung in both. I will admit, I have never truly been convinced by his Wotan – until last night.

Having also seen him at Covent Garden and the Metropolitan I have always felt that there was that final ‘something’ missing. Not so of his Wotan on the stage of the Royal Albert Hall. Perhaps it was because he was stripped bare of the distractions of a stage setting that his performance was incredible. Vocally he chartered the descent of Wotan from arrogant God to loving and distraught father. Every phrase was thought through and convincingly delivered – the words always clear, his voice marvelously shaded, the phrasing beautifully shaped, his singing always incredibly expressive. His was a Wotan worth reckoning with – from his incredible scene with Fricka to his final showdown and heartrending breakdown. His Leb wohl was both majestic and human.

As his wife, Ekaterina Gubanova continued her tour de force as Fricka. And my God from her first appearance, as she slinked down the stairs, she sounded and looked the part. I have yet to finish my review of Gergiev’s recording of this opera simply because I struggle to get beyond listening to the second act with Ms Gubanova. And here she displayed the same high level of musicianship, that beautifully rich and almost muscular mezzo that perfectly conveys the haughty grandeur required of Fricka. Throughout the scene this was a Fricka in control – not completely the woman still hopefully in love of Stephanie Blythe – but a Goddess. Yet, right at the end, once she had extracted the necessary promise from Wotan, there was a sudden and unexpected sign that this was a Fricka who still loved her husband as he sat broken.

At the opposite end of the emotional spectrum was Anja Kampe’s incredible performance Sieglinde. From the vulnerability of her opening scene with Simon O’Neill’s Siegmund and their burgeoning love, her distress in the Second Act to her final exultant and ringing O hehrstes Wunder, Kampe displayed a vocal authority that has definitely grown since I first saw her in this role. Her voice was strong and even throughout its range and again the colours she injected into her singing was tingling.

Opposite Sieglinde, Simon O’Neill was a credible and vocally secure Siegmund. I wonted for more drama in his characterization and perhaps at times greater depth to his singing but there was no denying his commitment in the role.

Hunding as bully was brilliantly portrayed by the deep and brutal singing of Eric Halfvarson. But his was no cipher in performance. Above the brutish and threatening vocal stance he adopted – and led by Barenboim – Halfvarson also uncovered the oft missed – and in many ways – more threatening ability to find those moments in Hunding’s music to sneer and patronise.

And Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde? Personally there aren’t sufficient superlatives.

Unlike in San Francisco, where she was head and shoulders above her colleagues, here Ms Stemme was equally matched by the rest of the cast and it strengthened and enriched her performance. Vocally secure throughout her Brünnhilde was simply stunning and spot on. Her eloquence in the role was simply mesmerising. She made you hear and feel everything – from Brünnhilde’s initial bravado as Wotan’s favourite to the wonder and awe as she witnessed true love to the anguish and fear of defying of father.

There simply isn’t a Brünnhilde like her today.

Even the Walküre – sometimes a hit and miss affair of competitive singing – were marshalled and made a thrilling ensemble. Vocally secure, each had a sufficiently identifiable vocal timbre that made them individuals as well.

So to Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin.

Simply genius.

Barenboim – conducting the first act without glancing at the score – seemed more involved than his measured conducting of Das Rheingold. Clearly this is an opera he loves dearly and it showed in his gestures to the orchestra. Never was this more noticeable than when he was driving the orchestra towards the final bars of each of the three acts. Or when he was exhorting the excellent brass section to greater – if it was possible – grandeur in their playing. Or threat and menace generated at the very beginning, when his physical gestures that had the strings digging deep from the beginning. Or when he motioned to the singers at critical moments in the drama.

And the Staatskapelle responded with deeply committed and passionate playing. Focused, attentive and engrossed in the music, each and every player was part of the drama that Barenboim unfolded on the stage.

I did not see the ‘altercation’ at the end of the Second Act but if performance is sometimes about artistic difference then it worked because I do believe that the playing in the final act even managed to surpass that of the preceding acts.

After a brilliant Das Rheingold, it was impossible to think that the ensemble could raise the bar with Die Walküre. But they did.

It makes the expectation of the Siegfried to come almost unbearable.

Wolfram Alpha – A Lesson In Perfection

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on May 6, 2012 at 6:38 pm

Review – Tannhäuser (Wagnerzyklus, Berlin. Saturday 5 May 2012)

Tannhäuser – Robert Dean-Smith
Wolfram von Eschenbach – Christian Gerhaher
Elizabeth – Nina Stemme
Venus – Marina Prudenskaja
Landgraf Hermann von Thüringen – Albert Dohmen
Walter von der Vogelweide – Peter Sonn
Biterolf – Wilhem Schwinghammer
Heinrich vin Schreiber – Michael McCown
Reinmar von Zweter – Martin Snell
Ein Junger Hirte – Bianca Reim
Edelknabe – Sabine Puhlmann, Isabelle Voßkühler, Roksolana Chraniuk & Bettina Peck

Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin
Rundfunkchor Berlin

Chorus master – Nicolas Fink
Conductor – Marek Janowski

First of all plaudits to Marek Janowski for his bold plan to perform in concert and record for posterity all of Wagner’s main operas in and around the year of Wagner’s centenary. So far together with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin and an assembly of accomplished singers he has performed Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Die Fliegende Holländer and Tristan und Isolde with the first two already pressed as CD sets.

At a time when classical record companies are on the whole veering away from recording complete operas, Janowski’s determination and artistic commitment makes a significant and important contribution.

One of the strengths of a concert performance of opera – you can argue – is that it removes the distraction of the staging. I am not in any way saying however that concert performances are in any way better – although judging from some of the stagings I have seen, a concert performances would have been preferable. But rather that they require a different kind of concentration and result in a different emotional response.

And of course, there are ‘straight’ concert performances as that of Tannhäuser in the Großer Saal of the Philharmonie Hall in Berlin, or there are semi-staged performances such as Opera North‘s brilliant Das Rheingold.

In the case of last night it was – bar a single but not overly distracting element – a memorable night with performances of the highest musical standard.

From the opening chorale of the overture it was clear that Janowski was going to take this Tannhäuser at a brisker pace than normal. Without sacrificing any clarity at all, the result was a compelling performance with Janowski demonstrating a clear and intelligent understanding of the overall structure of the opera as well as a deep sensitivity for the singers and the challenges that this opera throws at them.

The orchestral playing of the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin was of the highest standard with a beautifully calibrated combination of warmth and bite in the strings with accurate and delicate woodwind and bright brass support. If I had one small gripe it was the affected performance of Thomas Herzog’s cor anglais playing. Being an oboist myself it all seemed a tad too ‘dramatic’. And it almost felt as if his bell-swinging was distracting the already nervous Ms Reim.

And similarly the Rundfunkchor Berlin was superb – resonant, clear and rising to the challenge of each climax while juxtaposing them with the most impressive hushed – almost reverent – singing when required. The chorale at the opening of the third act was particularly spine tingling. I’ve not heard choral singing of this standard apart from the LSO Chorus in the BBC Philharmonic’s Mahler in Bridgewater Hall for a very long time.

Nina Stemme was the original reason for purchasing a ticket for this concert. I had missed her in Tristan und Isolde with Janowski in March due to work commitments and having never seen her in this role this more than assuaged my irritation at missing her Isolde. I have seen her in the Loy production of Tristan at Covent Garden (where I was fortunately enough to be able to see all the action from my seat unlike others) as well as a magnificent Brunnhilde in her first complete Ring in San Francisco.

She is without doubt one of – if not the – leading Wagnerian soprano at the moment because, in short, hers was an incredible Elizabeth. There is definitely something of Birgit Nilsson in her incredibly rich, flexible and dynamic voice, even throughout its range and clarion-clear. Not only did she display great vitality and gusto in Dich, teure Halle, grüß ich wieder at the beginning of the second act – more than ably supported by the grand sweep of Janowski and the orchestra – but was able to also deliver the quieter, more introspective parts of the piece with great skill. Allmächt’ge Jungfrau, hör mein Flehen! was one of two highlights of the evening. As far from the majestic sweep of Elizabeth’s opening number, this is possibly – with its delicate woodwind scoring – Wagner’s most exposed writing for any of his female characters. It neither fazed nor intimidated Ms Stemme whose rapt performance had the whole audience completely motionless and mesmerised. And in the closing scenes of Act Two she more than ably – and with incredible musicianship and precision – held her own again all her male counterparts and the orchestra and chorus as well.

Venus is a thankless role. She’s not a nice woman and the music that Wagner wrote for her reflects this. As a result it requires a singer not only of great vocal strength but also intuition. The Venus of Marina Prudenskaja nearly had it all. She possesses a dark soprano that suited the role and if at times her intonation went astray in the search for dramatic realisation it was a small price to pay. I see that she will sing Waltraute in the Wagnerzyklus Götterdämmerung that I look forward too. And I wouldn’t mind seeing her in recital as well, particularly perhaps in Wagner’s own Wesendonck lieder.

Christian Gerhaher’s Wolfram was a lesson in perfection. I remember seeing Covent Garden’s production in 2010 when Gerhaher was unavoidably delayed by snow. His role was more than competently picked up at the time by Daniel Grice and he arrived just in time for the final act.

Renowned as a lieder singer of great talent, it is clear that Gerhaher’s expertise in this genre pays huge dividends when it comes to his performance in opera. His baritone was rich and mellifluous, and as with Ms Stemme, even and resonant throughout his register. But it was his complete mastery of the text, colouring and inflecting his voice as the words demanded, that demonstrated his incredible talent and made his a Wolfram to remember.

On this occasion his O du mein holden Abendstern was incredible and similarly it topped off what was simply the strongest performance of the night. Pace Ms Stemme but I did notice on more than one occasion how even you were ensnared by his performance. His song in the first act was beautifully poised and underscored with seamless legato and wonderfully controlled dynamic range. Last night Gerhaher more than proved he was the ‘alpha’ male amongst all vying for Elizabeth’s hand. In the real world Tannhäuser wouldn’t have stood a chance.

And special mention too for Albert Dohmen’s Hermann von Thüringen, Peter Sonn’s Walter von der Vogelweide and Bianca Reim’s Junger Hirte. Again Dohmen’s Landgraf may have had moments of intonation trouble but it was an impressive portrayal and Sonn’s elegant tenor rang out above both his colleagues and the orchestra. I see he sang David in Janowski’s Die Meistersinger so I might just have to purchase it. Ms Reim had a very clear and appealing soprano but again – and clearly it was a case of nerves and perhaps the distraction of Herzog’s manic gesticulation of his cor anglais – she suffered some uncomfortable intonation problems. But nonetheless a good performance.

So finally to the hero – or anti-hero? – of the piece, Tannhäuser himself. Originally billed as Torsten Kerl it was in fact Robert Dean-Smith. Having seen Dean-Smith only recently as The Emperor in Die Frau ohne Schatten in Vienna I was surprised to be disappointed. His voice sounded strained and one dimensional for most of the opera and he seem to struggled with the legato – almost quasi-Italianate – lines that Wagner wrote for the character. It wasn’t an unpleasant performance but disappointingly it was a lacklustre one. Perhaps this was also because the incredible performance of Gerhaher through Dean-Smith’s inadequacy in this specific role into uncomfortable sharp relief. By the end of the evening his Tannhäuser was neither sexually charged nor heroic for me. A shame as it was the one thing that marred what was otherwise a memorable evening.

And the whole evening was driven forward by Janowski’s incredible performance on the podium. It was sheer brilliance. From the opening hushed chorale to the final chord his Tannhäuser was one of dramatic urgency without ever letting the detail of Wagner’s score or the beauty of the singing be lost. His understanding of Wagner and the highest standard of playing and singing he gets from his ensemble is awe-inspiring.

Quite rightly the Berlin audience went crazy after each act and at the end.

I haven’t listened to Janowski’s 1980 Ring cycle for a while now, but when I get back to London I will be making room on my iPod for that as well as those instalments of his Wagnerzyklus that are available on CD.

And I cannot wait for him to mount the podium for an all-new recording of Der Ring. While its a shame that Ms Stemme will not be involved to record her first Brunnhilde I am sure it will be as thrilling and memorable a set of concert performances as last night in Berlin.

Personally I cannot wait.

2011. The Magic. The Mishaps. The Future.

In Baroque, Beethoven, Classical Music, Gustav Mahler, Handel, JS Bach, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss, Richard Wagner on December 24, 2011 at 8:24 am

2011. The year that I started this blog to recount my own opinions about performances that I attended and CDs that I listened to.

No one’s opinion – particularly mine – is either right not perfect. Listening to music is an intensely, intensely personal experience. I can sit next to a friend and at the end of performance walk away with a completely reaction and different point of view. And on some occasions following what can be heated discussion my opinion has changed. And I can leave performances I attend alone with one perception and after some thought, or a flash of ‘something’, I have changed my mind. Sometimes completely.

So what I have selected below are the ten events or recordings that have struck me as the most significant performances I have heard in 2011. And five that were disappointing against the original expectation.

Top of a list of ten is a recording – or set of recordings – that even now I return to on a daily basis. Step forward Ricardo Chailly, the GewandhausOrchester Leipzig and their well near perfect performances of Beethoven’s symphonies and overtures. At tempi faster than usually expected, these are lithe, muscular renditions of these great works. But at no point do either Chailly or the GewandhausOrchester sacrifice speed for precision and an acute attention to detail. And as I have said before, the timpanist is a revelation. And of all the symphonies, the ‘Eroica’ is my personal favourite and I was fortunate enough to see them perform this symphony during their visit to London. And in 2012 I plan to visit Leipzig and see them on their home turf.

Needless to say, you haven’t purchased this set already then I can’t recommend it enough.

Next to Munich for Richard Jones’ production of Lohengrin in July. I had originally hoped to see both Adrienne Pieczonka and Waltraud Meier in the two female roles, and while Emily Magee more than respectably replaced Ms Pieczonka as Elsa, it was very much Meier’s evening. Her Ortrud was a masterful character study of pure malevolence. As I remarked at the time, there was something almost Shakespearean in the way that Jones revealed the character not only of Ortrud but of her husband, Telramund played magnificently by Evgeny Nikitin. Indeed even when she was not singing, Ms Meier held the complete attention of the audience. Jones direction was masterful not only in its attention to detail – there were some incredibly thought-provoking moments – but also in the way he also captured the grand sweep of emotion as well. The ending – not the traditional one of redemption – is not one I will forget in a hurry.

Another unforgettable evening of Wagner – at the other end of the spectrum – was Opera North’s semi-staged production of Das Rheingold at the Lowry Theatre on Salford Quays. From the moment Richard Farnes – in a moment of simple yet effective theatrical magic – lifted his baton and raised the waves of the Rhine itself, it was a near perfect performance. The singers were without a single weakness and if I am to salute just a few then without doubt they are the Fricka of Yvonne Howard, Lee Bisset’s Freia, the Rhinemaidens one and all – Jeni Bern, Jennifer Johnston and Sarah Castle – and the brilliant Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as Loge. And special mention of Peter Mumford and his exceptionally elegant and effective lighting. This was a performance of Das Rheingold that outshone many I have seen by some of the so-called ‘major’ opera companies and some of that credit is due to the artistic consultancy of Dame Anne Evans. I have a ticket to their production of Die Walküre next year and do not doubt that it will be of the same incredible high standard.

Staying with The Ring, next is Hamburg Opera’s production of Die Walküre (April). General Manager and conductor Simone Young drew incredibly rich and opulent music making from both the orchestra and the singers. Without a doubt this was music that Young both loved deeply and knew inside out. It reminded me in so many ways of Reginald Goodall’s approach to Wagner – majestic, informed and intuitive and with a real attention to the orchestral detail and sensitive to the singers. And the case was incredibly strong. Angela Denoke and Katarina Dalayman were Sieglinde and Brunnhilde respectively but the real revelation for me that evening was Lilli Paasikivi as Fricka. For the first time her confrontation with Wotan in the Second Act became a central focus of the unfolding drama as never before in productions I had seen. Even the production and direction – having seen Gotterdammerung the previous year – was strong. As I said at the time, each action was investing in meaning and the set – while incredibly simply – was completely integrated in the narrative. The Hamburg Opera will perform their complete Ring Cycle in 2012 and I am hoping that I can get the time to see it.

Unexpectedly, Mahler appears twice in my lists of performances. The first is a memorable performance of his Resurrection Symphony by the BBC Philharmonic under their new Chief Conductor, Juanjo Mena. The BBC Philharmonic sounds exceptional – European – at the moment, which is due to their stewardship under Noseda and this is set to continue under Mena. His approach to Mahler’s Second Symphony was one of architectural clarity with an almost Latin-lilt. It’s a shame that it hasn’t be caught for future listening on a CD.

Renée Fleming’s recent performance of the Vier Letzte Lieder under the baton of Christoph Eschenbach crowned a great year of performances for me. As with their 1999 recording, the pair took a valedictory approach with tempi that revelled in the lush sound world created by Strauss. Eschenbach – bar a few small glitches – drew some glorious playing from the London Philharmonic Orchestra but Fleming dominated with an intensely personal and intelligent performance, her warm burnished tone, with a new resonance to her bottom notes, making for a memorable evening.

Kasper Holten soon arrives at Covent Garden and I was fortunate to catch his final production at the Royal Danish Opera in Copenhagen. Die Frau ohne Schatten is an incredibly difficult listen and – with its dense storyline – complicated to direct effectively. However Holten, with his manga-noir set managed to negotiate the audience clearly through the story as well as effectively highlight the underlying psychology woven in. On the whole the singers were incredibly strong and Michael Schønwandt and the orchestra were marvellous in the pit. I think that Holten will be a refreshing and inspiring creative change for Covent Garden.

Il Complesso Barocco, led by Alan Curtis and a cast including the incredible Joyce DiDonato, Karina Gauvin and Marie Nicole Lemieux brought a musically stunning concert performance of Ariodante to London in May. Curtis’ troupe recording all of Handel’s opera – Giulio Cesare is next in 2012 – and this performance marked the release of Ariodante on CD. Needless to say while the charismatic and accomplished Ms DiDonato stole the show it was an incredible night. Each and every soloist sparked off each other to create some brilliant music making and the discovery – for me – of Sabina Puértolas. Definitely someone to watch.

Strauss Vier Letzte Lieder are placed twice in my top ten of 2011. This time a recording both by an unexpected soprano and which was an unexpected pleasure. Martina Arroyo – more commonly associated with Verdian roles recorded the songs with Gunter Wand. Her incredibly rich voice was well suited to Strauss and she more than managed the soaring vocal line and was sensitively supported by Wand.

And finally this year wouldn’t have been complete without regular delving into the cantatas of JS Bach. While it is better to listen to them in their entirety, the beauty of Gardiner’s exemplary and recordings with the Monteverdi players and singers and the wonder of shuffle means that many a happy hour has been spent waiting to see what random and revelatory track my iPod will play next. Wonderful.

But of course not all performances and recordings were as memorable. Or were memorable for the wrong reasons.

So here are my top five ‘turkeys’ of 2011. In brief.

Top of the list is the Marrinsky Opera production of Die Frau ohne Schatten as part of the Edinburgh Festival. Jonathan Kent’s production had some moments of intelligence but the whole thing was completely destroyed by what can only be described – bar Nikolai Putilin’s Barak – as very poor singing indeed. And Valery Gergiev’s conducting was nothing short of disappointing. I am still waiting for Mr Gergiev to send me a refund.

Next Maazel’s performance of Mahler’s Eighth symphony, which drew his cycle of the symphonies to an end. His meandering approach made for a lacklustre evening that couldn’t even be salvaged by a strong line up of singers. Indeed, with Maazel intent it seemed on working again the soloists, only Sarah Connolly acquitted herself with any success.

My final three choices all hail from my trips this year to the US – to New York and San Francisco. First, a shoddy performance of Il Trovatore at the Met where it seemed that Peter Gelb had made the decision to attract an audience with casting that couldn’t deliver for box office receipts. I don’t think I will ever want to risk seeing or hearing Dolora Zajick on stage again.

Next – and perhaps surprisingly – I have selected the San Francisco Ring cycle. It goes without saying that Nina Stemme as Brunnhilde was absolutely magnificent and for her alone it was worth the journey. In the singing stakes she was joined by Ronnita Miller as both Erda and Norn and a promising Siegmund by Brandon Jovanovich. However the remaining singers were generally not up to it and Donald Runnicles was completely uninspiring in the pit, generating mediocre and bland playing from the orchestra. And yet the most frustrating element was Francesca Zambello’s often lazy, ill-thought through direction. Promising to deal with the ‘real issues’ facing the US, instead she produced a sugar-coated production clearly more suited to placating San Francisco’s rich donors than forcing them to confront reality.

And finally, Robert LePage’s Die Walküre. Again this was not about the singing which was on the whole, superlative. While Deborah Voigt might not be the best Brunnhilde, she delivered a great performance as did Terfel, Westbroek and – on the whole – Kaufmann. And special mention to the incredibly human portrayal of Fricka by Stephanie Blythe. Less a goddess bent on revenge than a wife trying to save a marriage. But the staging, I felt, hindered the singers and became the main attraction, adding nothing to the narrative or underlying messages of Wagner’s opus, but rather merely a backdrop for some rather ineffective and distracting special effects.

So what of 2012? Well looking at my bookings so far, or which I have few, it seems to be a year of Tristan und Isolde. I am seeing it twice in Berlin, including a concert performance with Nina Stemme under Janowski as part of his plans to record all of Wagner’s operas. I am also off to the Millennium Centre to see Welsh National Opera’s production as well. Later in the year I have Opera North’s production of Die Walküre to look forward to as well as their new production of Giulio Cesare.

Other plans include hopefully Hamburg Opera’s Ring Cycle, Renée Fleming in Arabella in Paris and a trip to Leipzig for the GewandhausOrchester.

No plans for anything at English National Opera just yet. I was tempted by Der Rosenkavalier but I have seen the production and while I love the opera I don’t think it warrants a return.

And Covent Garden? Not their Ring Cycle. Once was enough. Perhaps Don Giovanni as I haven’t seen a production of it in a while.

And next year I intend to listen to one completely new piece of music at least every fortnight. So suggestions are most welcome.

So a merry Christmas to one and all and here is to an exciting, enjoyable and thought provoking 2012.

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