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Posts Tagged ‘Robert Dean Smith’

Brangäne und (Tristan und) Isolde

In BBC Proms, Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on July 28, 2013 at 10:52 am

Review – Tristan und Isolde (BBC Prom, Saturday 27 July 2013)

Tristan – Robert Dean Smith
Isolde – Violea Urmana
Brangäne – Mihoko Fujimura
Kurwenal – Boaz Daniel
King Mark – Kwangchui Youn
Melot – David Wilson-Johnson
Steersman – Edward Price
Shepherd/Young Sailor – Andrew Staples

Cor Anglais – Alison Teale

BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra

Semyon Bychov (Conductor)

Personally it was an odd choice for Roger Wright to programme Tristan und Isolde smack bang in the middle of Barenboim’s magnificent Ring cycle at the Proms. With Das Rheingold, Die Walküre and Siegfried still fresh in the audience’s mind – unkindly or not – comparisons would have been made.

For the most part favourably I would imagine.

It also struck me – attending the Berlin Ring and last night’s performance – how many Prom debuts were being made as a result of the Wagner bicentenary. I just hope that the BBC – with its newfound commitment to ‘culture’ – doesn’t wait another two hundred years.

The beauty of the Proms is that they sometimes reveal to the UK audience a number of previously unknown remarkable performers.

Ultimately I think that this Tristan und Isolde will be remembered for the stand-out and utterly compelling performance of Mihoko Fujimura.

Her Brangäne even surpassed her mistress Isolde with an absolutely stunning performance. Ms Fujimura’s mezzo was both bright and warm with a depth and richness that was missing from her colleagues.

Ms Fujimura gave an impassioned, vocally secure and musically intelligent performance the likes I have not seen since Sofie von Otter for Peter Sellars or Sarah Connolly for Jurowski.

And the singer ensured that her Brangäne was no cipher. Her horror in the First Act was palpable and her interjections in the Second Act nothing short of mesmerizing. Even her final short interjections in the final act were wonderfully accomplished.

It is not surprising that Ms Fujimura was the recipient of the loudest cheer and applause of the evening. So why do we not see more of this mezzo-soprano in the UK?

Sadly Peter Seiffert cancelled as Tristan and was replaced by Robert Dean Smith. I have mixed feelings about this tenor. Having seen him previously successfully negotiating the the Emperor in Die Frau ohne Schatten and a splendid Bachhus in Ariadne auf Naxos, his Tannhauser disappointed – it was strained and one dimensional.

And sadly his Tristan was very much the same.

Even having drunk the love potion, this Tristan was emotionally flat and vocally disappointing. The strain of singing this role is most telling as Robert Dean Smith heads towards the end of a phrase – the tone tightens and more often than not the last note is clipped or snatched.

There was some fine singing – especially the opening of the exquisite O sink hernieder Nacht der Liebe – but it was rather a Tristan of individual moments, not a sustained performance. At times he resorted to barking above the orchestra – and pace Maestro Bychov, you weren’t always the most sympathetic conductor to you singers – and at points of the vital Third Act monologue completely lost. As a result the dramatic impetus of this marvelous scene was mostly lost on me.

But most distracting was the ever increasing ‘beat’ in his voice that became evident in the Second Act, undermining to an extent the duet.

Again it could be that the venue isn’t doing the singers any favours, but when the vast majority of other singers are managing and in fact overcoming similar challenges, that can only form part of the problem.

Violeta Urmana was by contrast an emotionally intense and vocally formidable Isolde. Her voice may adopt a slightly harsh and brittle tone at the top of her register but she uses it to her advantage. It was thrilling in the curse scene and her confrontation with Tristan in the First Act for example but in the Second Act love scene an added warmth infused her voice. And the Liebestod was both beautiful and dramatic. Rising above the orchestra, Ms Urmana powered up to the inevitable climax but then didn’t fail to float those final few notes perfectly.

Of the rest of the cast Andrew Staples, as the Young Sailor high above our heads after the opening was clear and bright. The remaining singers were passable without being notable. Kwangchui Youn was a solid King Mark – the notes were there if nothing else.

The gentlemen of BBC Symphony Chorus were in fine voice and the Orchestra found that balance between the sensuality and swagger of Wagner’s music. The opening of the Prelude and the final act were beautifully wrought and the fevered intensity of the opening of the second act was both articulate and transparent.

And extra special kudos for the eloquent and haunting playing of Alison Teale. Simply beautiful.

Semyon Bychov himself was a conductor of two extremes with – surprisingly – very little in between. Her drew some excellent playing from the orchestra – as I have mentioned the sensuality was there as were the crowning moments – but there was little of the ebb and flow that Tristan und Isolde should have and some of the tempos – in the duet and final Liebestod for example – felt slightly hurried. And at times the orchestra simply overwhelmed the singers.

It cannot be denied that by the end of the performance this Tristan und Isolde was ‘Proms perfect’ in that sense of a star revealed.

The audience got to hear and revel in the beautiful voice and memorable Brangäne of Ms Mihoko Fujimura.

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.

A ‘LuSch’ FroSch in Clever Vienna

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on March 21, 2012 at 11:10 pm

Review – Die Frau ohne Schatten (Wien Staatsoper, 17 March 2012)

Der Kaiser/Emperor – Robert Dean Smith
Die Kaiserin/Empress- Adrianne Pieczonka
Die Amme/Nurse – Birgit Remmert
Barak The Dyer – Wolfgang Koch
Sein Weib/The Dyer’s Wife – Evelyn Herlitzius

Director – Robert Carsen
Conductor – Franz Welser-Möst
Wiener Staatsoper Orchestra & Chorus

Vienna, the home of The Secession, Freud, Jung and arguably the creative and spiritual home of Richard Strauss himself. The premiere of Die Frau ohne Schatten (‘FroSch’ as Strauss affectionately referred to it in correspondence with his librettist, von Hofmannstahl) was held in the city in 1919 and Richard Carsen’s thoughtful and well-paced production is in some ways an homage to the city itself both musically, culturally and philosophically.

It’s impossible not to start with Carsen’s production itself. I have previously seen his Iphigénie at Covent Garden with Susan Graham and was impressed with the real sense of claustrophobia he created which added to Gluck’s drama.

In the same way, this was possibly the strongest production of ‘FroSch’ I have seen either on stage or screen. It achieved an almost perfect balance of superb singing combined with intelligent and vital support from conductor and pit and married to an insightful yet challenging production.

And all this in Strauss’ most complex and challenging collaboration with von Hofmannsthal.

Over and above the incredible density of the libretto with its symbolism the biggest challenge for any director is how and where to set the opera. Kasper Holten created and successfully delivered a well-executed fantasy world with nods to manga and animé; Jonathan Kent‘s production opted for a fantasy world that confused chinoiserie and the Ivan Bilibin’s Russian fairytale illustrations with a backstreet launderette in Putin’s morally and politically corrupt Russia. While these interpretations worked – bar the incredibly flawed and poor music-making of Gergiev and his untidy band from the Mariinsky – in the sense that they placed von Hofmannsthal’s drama in a make-believe world they both left me wanting for a deeper emotional interpretation of the drama.

Refreshingly, Carsen’s production firmly rooted the drama in a modern yet simultaneously a timeless world where the emotional drama was played out through the lens of psychoanalysis, a fitting tribute to the city where the discipline was born. I say timeless as the staging and the costumes alluded to succeeding centuries. The Nurse for example looked like she’d stepped of the latest TV hospital drama, but the robes of Empress and Dyer’s Wife and the shirt collars of the Emperor and Barak hinted at the previous Secession era.

The opera opens in a bedroom. The Nurse, in a white coat of the medical fraternity is observing her patient The Empress who is sleeping. The Messenger arrives – The Nurse’s medical colleague – and consults The Empress’ notes while delivering the ultimatum that unless she gains a shadow the Emperor will turn to stone. In a clever coup-de-théâtre the backdrop then fades to reveal a mirror image of the original room and the entrance of The Emperor. Yet this alter-space had one tiny and significant difference – the photo on the desk was not of The Emperor, but with it’s black ribbon at one corner, it was the photo of a dead man.

Keikobad – father of The Empress – is dead.

In a single fade and with so subtlety placed a visual motif I almost missed it, Carsen has revealed his intention and direction of travel. He has abolished any sense of fairytale and instead we are in the world of a daughter locked in a world of grief which is impacting on her marriage. As a result the symbolism of gaining a shadow takes on new perspectives. Not only is The Nurse the only character who is able to cross into The Emperor’s world as well as the various planes that Carsen constructs as the drama unfolds, but the very nature of what the ‘shadow’ represents is open to interpretation.

When The Empress wakes up it is clear that The Nurse is more psychoanalyst that pill-administering doctor. The significance of the three-day deadline takes on a new hue. To cure her. To find a breakthrough in her breakdown.

For Carsen, when The Empress begs The Nurse to take her to ‘the human world’ to find a shadow this isn’t about a physical journey but rather a journey into her own mind. That is where the problem lies and it is the intervention of psychoanalysis that will uncover it.

Again Carsen’s attention to detail and obsession with telling a clear narrative come to the fore as the fade returns us to the alter-world but this time a world wrecked and ruined with broken furniture and the chaos of mess. Clothes everywhere and tables overturned.

And The Dyer’s Wife is The Empress alter ego except she is dishevelled, distressed and desperate. Carsen’s reinterpretation of the relationship between the two women is a masterstroke. He removes the normal physical tension between these two protagonists and instead melds them into one. And he created a similar parallel between The Emperor and Barak. For me the question posed was this – was The Empress truly in her own mind or was what we were seeing in Barak and his Wife the true reality of her life?

It was here that the subtlety of the lighting became even more evident. The creation of shadow and shade is an important tool in any theatre or opera director’s kit of parts and when used with intelligence can be incredible effective. Here it was clear that careful thought had been given to its role. Tellingly Carsen ensured that The Empress never cast a shadow. She was always in the shade – a voyeur within her own mind. And only The Nurse was visible to Barak’s Wife.

Strauss’ opera is full of challenges and none is more challenging than how to handle the somewhat unexpected Night Watchman’s chorus that closes the first act. Holten for example placed them off-stage as his Dyer’s Wife – Linda Watson – gazed longingly at the metropolis that eluded her.

Carsen’s solution was similarly tidy. He used it as the leverage to literally lift the walls of the set and symbolically I believe to lift the walls of The Empress’ mind. The start of the intervention that might lead to a cure.

The Second Act continued along this route with the same attention to detail by Carsen and his creative team. Interestingly the appearance of a true nude – and more than physically beautiful – young man (where do they find them?) elicited no response from the Viennese audience. In London such a theatrical – and justifiable act – would have raised sighs of indignation or titters. But in this act, the most incredible moment – both dramaturgically and musically – was the dream sequence. With Kammersängerin Pieczonka hanging precariously – so it seemed – from her vertical bed we finally came to confront what we had always suspected had led to her ‘breakdown’ – the death of her father. Using a film projected onto gauze we switched from Ms Piezoncka’s amazing performance to a film of her adolescent-self going through the door of her father’s bedroom and inadvertently witnessing his death. Again Carsen tied his interpretation back to the text of von Hofmannsthal with closing images of the father tying a pendant – the talisman of the libretto – around his daughter’s neck. It was gripping and literally the stuff that psychoanalysis is made of.

In the Final Act the momentum continued. First of all, and in a scene similar to that in Copenhagen Barak and his Wife were alone on a bare stage, enclosed in cubes of light. As each came to the self-realisation of their love together then a door – the door from the previous film – opened at the back of the stage. The first step in freeing the alter egos of The Empress’ mind and beginning her own journey of recovery.

And Carsen’s interpretation of the Empress and The Nurse as they journeyed towards Keikobad was deftly dealt with. The Empress realises what she must to as a giant version – and I do mean giant – of the door to her father’s bedroom opens at the back of the stage. And The Nurse is left to face The Messenger/Doctor who proceeds to pull apart The Empress’ file page by page. As he abandons her, the prone bodies that have been lying on the floor – and perhaps her past patients – rise up and mob The Nurse, their own cases studies in hand.

The penultimate scene returns us to the bedroom of The Empress. Here the symbolism of the water in the previous film is brought to the fore as she finally faces up to her fears over the death of her father. It is not The Emperor that is turning to stone but her marriage bed before she finally gathers the strength to symbolically pull away the covers. Again the whole scene – so brilliantly directed – was made all the more luminous by Ms Pieczonka’s mesmerising performance and the incredibly simple but effective achievement of her shadow.

Again the final scene presents a challenge. For Holt it was an opportunity to raise – if rather late in the day of the production itself – questions over the pro-life argument. I can’t even remember how Kent managed it as by then all I wanted to do was leave.

For Carsen it seemed to be a combination of a metaphysical response to the proceeding drama mixed with – if I am honest – it seemed to me a 1950s Hollywood film interpretation of, well, Heaven. And weirdly it worked brilliantly. In front of a plain white canvas which so effectively projected the shadows – children of those on stage – the closing scene became a paean to love. It should have been schmaltzy but it simply wasn’t. And it worked.

To put it simply. Carsen had taken an incredibly complicated fairytale and remodelled it – bravely and I think successfully – as a modern love story.

And if Carsen’s vision was strong and consistent then the singing was some of the best have seen not only in FroSch but in a long time on any stage.

As I have said previously, Strauss does not write music that is kind to men. With the exception of Baron Ochs and the Tenor in Der Rosenkavalier, the roles for men in this and Ariadne for example are unforgiving. So full marks to both Robert Dean Smith and Wolfgang Koch for riding for the most part above the orchestra and delivering musically accomplished performances.

All the off-stage roles – and in particular Chen Reiss – was similarly of a high calibre. But it was the three leading ladies who stole the evening.

The Nurse is an incredibly challenging role and after a slightly shaky start Birgit Remmert delivered a strong and characterful performance. Hers is a dark timbred soprano and while she occasionally displayed some vocal unevenness manoeuvred the demands of the score with success.

Evelyn Herlitzius as The Dyer’s Wife was mesmerising and she brought to the role hints of both Elektra and Salome. Vocally bright and clear for me she on occasion tended towards stridency although I think that perhaps this was more a case of pacing herself than vocal problems. Her acting was faultless and for me the most telling moment of her incredible talent was at the very beginning of her appearance when she almost – but only almost – seemed to fold into herself and surrender to her husband’s affections before turning on him.

However the highlight of the evening was The Empress of Adrianne Pieczonka. An eminent Straussian – most memorably I saw her as the Marschallin in Munich – she delivered an incredibly strong, insightful and musical performance. The Empress is not an easy role buy any means but Ms Pieczonka not only managed the vocal demands of the score itself not only in terms of the soaring vocal lines but also rode above the orchestra while maintaining the highest level of musicianship and intelligent interpretation. Her is a voice of great warmth and depth with a lustrous even tone through her entire register. Combined with an innate sense in terms of acting the role, never have I seen or heard the penultimate scene performed so wonderfully. And as I have said, her dream sequence was mesmerising. Indeed the Wiener Zeitung’s review – “Märchenhaft schattige Kaiserin” – was full of praise for her performance and called her inspiring (“begeisternd”).

And in the pit, Welser-Möst commanded the score and drew the most luxuriant and luminous playing from the orchestra. The brass were bright, the woodwind were pointed and the strings burnished. A Straussian par excellence, he unfolded Strauss’ wonderful music but never lost sight of the transparency needed even in the most heavily orchestrated moments to ensure that the singers were supported. And above all else, Welser-Möst demonstrated – and as the programme argued – that Die Frau ohne Schatten is the last ‘Romantic’ opera.

I hope against hope that this production will be recorded in some format. It was one of those rare nights when the highest level of musicianship was drawn from an amazing ensemble of singers which then combined on stage under the careful and intelligent direction of Carsen to produce a most memorable evening.

If I could I would return this weekend (24 March) and experience it all over again.

Viva medici.tv – Ariadne auf Naxos (Festspielhaus, Baden-Baden)

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on February 26, 2012 at 7:46 pm

Review – Saturday 25 February 2012

Ariadne/Prima Donna – Renée Fleming
The Composer – Sophie Koch
Zerbinetta – Jane Archibald
Bacchus – Robert Dean Smith
The Music Teacher – Eike Wilm Schulte
Majordomo – René Kollo
Harlequine – Nikolay Borchev
Scaramuccio – Kenneth Roberson
Truffaldino – Steven Humes
Brighella – Kevin Conners
The Dancing Master – Christian Baumgärtel
Lackey – Roman Grübner
Naiad – Christina Landshamer
Dryad – Rachel Frenkel
Echo – Lenneke Ruiten

Director & Set Designer – Philippe Arlaud 

Costumes – Andrea Uhmann
Conductor – Christian Thielemann
Staatskapelle Dresden

Having seen The Met’s production of Götterdämmerung, as a HD live transmission a few weeks ago it seemed but a small step to watch a live stream of an opera via my laptop from the comfort of my own home.

It is something I have always considered doing but it wasn’t until I stumbled upon medici.tv that I decided it was time. And it had everything to do with lure of Ariadne auf Naxos from the Festspielhaus, Baden-Baden. Plus the fact that my MacBook Pro has a rather generous screen.

First things first. medici.tv is an exemplary service and technically the live stream was faultless. Good value at about 7€ a per month a quick scan of its catalogue persuaded me to take out a subscription – even if some of the performances and recitals are currently geoblocked in the UK.

However the main driver for watching the performance was Renée Fleming’s role debut as Ariadne/The Prima Donna. And having seen her live as the Marschallin and Madeleine, the Countess in Capriccio she did not disappoint. I have said it before, Renée Fleming is a brilliant Strauss interpreter – his vocal lines suit her perfectly, and over the years her voice has developed an even warmer and burnished tone throughout its range without losing any of its flexibility. Es gibt ein Reich was simply beautiful – and Fleming demonstrated not only the smoothest of legato phrasing but complete control of the dynamic range of the scene with light and dark shading of her voice. However while this was for me the highlight of the evening – when she sang ‘totenreich’ it sent a shiver down my spine – hers was a faultless performance throughout. In particular her final duet with her Bacchus – Robert Dean Smith – was wonderful, again with not even a hint of strain.

I had previously seen Sophie Koch at Covent Garden – first as Octavian and then in her role debut as Brangäne in Loy’s much-maligned – but personally loved – production of Tristan und Isolde. I do hope ROH revive it. As The Composer – looking somewhat like Charlie Chaplin to me – she had a pretty convincing grasp of the taxing vocal line that Strauss had written for the character. However there were times when there was clearly strain at the top of the voice and occasionally a more fluid legato line was wanting. However a strong performance nonetheless.

The surprise of the evening was Jane Archibald’s Zerbinetta. Not only must the soprano who takes on this role be a formidable singer, she must also be a good actor. Ms Archibald had both in spades. Not only did she inhabit the character completely – flirtatious, vivacious and, to me at least, more than a little wise – but she had great stage presence. Even over broadband. And vocally she was impressive. Her performance of Grossmächtige Prinzessin! was not only vocally impressive but intelligently performed. Quite rightly she was applauded at the end of the scena and at the end of the performance.

Similarly it was great to see The Majordomo reprised by René Kollo. Often taken – and usually with great aplomb – by actors Kollo brought his vast experience, including the insight of singing Bacchus himself, to the role. Masterful.

Strauss has never been kind to his tenors. I think of The Emperor in Die Frau ohne Schatten for example, and similarly in Ariadne auf Naxos he doesn’t seem to warm to them much. The vocal line often sits uncomfortably high for many singers but in Baden-Baden Robert Dean Smith acquitted himself brilliantly. Vocally clear and bright his final duet with Ms Fleming was, as I have said already, wonderful. You could almost believe they were wandering off into the sunset.

It’s often easy to forget that – possibly more than his other operas – Ariadne auf Naxos is an ensemble piece from the very beginning. And the ensemble at the Festspielhaus was excellent. However special mention must go to Roman Grübner for his clear voice and slick acting as The Lackey, he three nymphs – Christina Landshamer, Rachel Frenkel and Lenneke Ruiten – and the comedia dell’arte inspired troupe – Nikolay Borchev, Kenneth Roberson, Steven Humes, Kevin Conners as well as Christian Baumgärtel’s Dancing Master.

And what of the production? This is the fourth production I have seen. I’ve watch the Metropolitan Opera production on DVD and many moons ago saw the production at English National Opera in the early 1990s (quite possibly my first exposure to the work as well as to Richard Strauss). More recently I saw the production at Covent Garden complete with its rising floor.

I have to admit I enjoyed the Baden-Baden production. It was unfussy and simple and clearly Phillipe Arlaud was more than inspired, it seemed, by Hollywood. I have already mentioned Koch’s Chaplin-esque Composer but even Renée Fleming had the hint of a 1950s starlet about her. Although her outfit in the Opera reminded me tangentially of two unrelated things. Firstly her look brought to mind Elizabeth Connell who sadly died recently. But also of the costume allegedly worn by Mary, Queen of Scots for her execution – a black gown hiding a Catholic-martyr red dress beneath. And Zerbinetta has something of the Sally Bowles about her.

And clichéd though it might be, the sight of Ariadne and Bacchus walking off into the night was simple and effective.

It all worked and I don’t think Arlaud deserved the boos when he came on stage.

The conductor, Christian Thielemann, is more than an accomplished interpreter of Strauss and he led the Staatskapelle Dresden throughout with great distinction and clear love for the score. And while it might be almost impossible to judge this from a live stream to a laptop, there was clearly a strong connection between the pit and the ensemble on stage.

So a night of firsts. Ms Fleming’s first ever Ariadne, and I hope that one day I will see her perform the role live on stage. For me, my first ever live-to-laptop streaming. And it’s definitely something I will be doing again. I can’t say it will ever replace the thrill, excitement and atmosphere of a live performance but time and money preclude me from attending every thing I might want to see.

And I heartily recommend that everyone sign up for medici.tv.

A great find.

Viva medici.tv – Ariadne auf Naxos (Festspielhaus, Baden-Baden)

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on February 26, 2012 at 7:46 pm

Review – Saturday 25 February 2012

Ariadne/Prima Donna – Renée Fleming
The Composer – Sophie Koch
Zerbinetta – Jane Archibald
Bacchus – Robert Dean Smith
The Music Teacher – Eike Wilm Schulte
Majordomo – René Kollo
Harlequine – Nikolay Borchev
Scaramuccio – Kenneth Roberson
Truffaldino – Steven Humes
Brighella – Kevin Conners
The Dancing Master – Christian Baumgärtel
Lackey – Roman Grübner
Naiad – Christina Landshamer
Dryad – Rachel Frenkel
Echo – Lenneke Ruiten

Director & Set Designer – Philippe Arlaud 

Costumes – Andrea Uhmann
Conductor – Christian Thielemann
Staatskapelle Dresden

Having seen The Met’s production of Götterdämmerung, as a HD live transmission a few weeks ago it seemed but a small step to watch a live stream of an opera via my laptop from the comfort of my own home.

It is something I have always considered doing but it wasn’t until I stumbled upon medici.tv that I decided it was time. And it had everything to do with lure of Ariadne auf Naxos from the Festspielhaus, Baden-Baden. Plus the fact that my MacBook Pro has a rather generous screen.

First things first. medici.tv is an exemplary service and technically the live stream was faultless. Good value at about 7€ a per month a quick scan of its catalogue persuaded me to take out a subscription – even if some of the performances and recitals are currently geoblocked in the UK.

However the main driver for watching the performance was Renée Fleming’s role debut as Ariadne/The Prima Donna. And having seen her live as the Marschallin and Madeleine, the Countess in Capriccio she did not disappoint. I have said it before, Renée Fleming is a brilliant Strauss interpreter – his vocal lines suit her perfectly, and over the years her voice has developed an even warmer and burnished tone throughout its range without losing any of its flexibility. Es gibt ein Reich was simply beautiful – and Fleming demonstrated not only the smoothest of legato phrasing but complete control of the dynamic range of the scene with light and dark shading of her voice. However while this was for me the highlight of the evening – when she sang ‘totenreich’ it sent a shiver down my spine – hers was a faultless performance throughout. In particular her final duet with her Bacchus – Robert Dean Smith – was wonderful, again with not even a hint of strain.

I had previously seen Sophie Koch at Covent Garden – first as Octavian and then in her role debut as Brangäne in Loy’s much-maligned – but personally loved – production of Tristan und Isolde. I do hope ROH revive it. As The Composer – looking somewhat like Charlie Chaplin to me – she had a pretty convincing grasp of the taxing vocal line that Strauss had written for the character. However there were times when there was clearly strain at the top of the voice and occasionally a more fluid legato line was wanting. However a strong performance nonetheless.

The surprise of the evening was Jane Archibald’s Zerbinetta. Not only must the soprano who takes on this role be a formidable singer, she must also be a good actor. Ms Archibald had both in spades. Not only did she inhabit the character completely – flirtatious, vivacious and, to me at least, more than a little wise – but she had great stage presence. Even over broadband. And vocally she was impressive. Her performance of Grossmächtige Prinzessin! was not only vocally impressive but intelligently performed. Quite rightly she was applauded at the end of the scena and at the end of the performance.

Similarly it was great to see The Majordomo reprised by René Kollo. Often taken – and usually with great aplomb – by actors Kollo brought his vast experience, including the insight of singing Bacchus himself, to the role. Masterful.

Strauss has never been kind to his tenors. I think of The Emperor in Die Frau ohne Schatten for example, and similarly in Ariadne auf Naxos he doesn’t seem to warm to them much. The vocal line often sits uncomfortably high for many singers but in Baden-Baden Robert Dean Smith acquitted himself brilliantly. Vocally clear and bright his final duet with Ms Fleming was, as I have said already, wonderful. You could almost believe they were wandering off into the sunset.

It’s often easy to forget that – possibly more than his other operas – Ariadne auf Naxos is an ensemble piece from the very beginning. And the ensemble at the Festspielhaus was excellent. However special mention must go to Roman Grübner for his clear voice and slick acting as The Lackey, he three nymphs – Christina Landshamer, Rachel Frenkel and Lenneke Ruiten – and the comedia dell’arte inspired troupe – Nikolay Borchev, Kenneth Roberson, Steven Humes, Kevin Conners as well as Christian Baumgärtel’s Dancing Master.

And what of the production? This is the fourth production I have seen. I’ve watch the Metropolitan Opera production on DVD and many moons ago saw the production at English National Opera in the early 1990s (quite possibly my first exposure to the work as well as to Richard Strauss). More recently I saw the production at Covent Garden complete with its rising floor.

I have to admit I enjoyed the Baden-Baden production. It was unfussy and simple and clearly Phillipe Arlaud was more than inspired, it seemed, by Hollywood. I have already mentioned Koch’s Chaplin-esque Composer but even Renée Fleming had the hint of a 1950s starlet about her. Although her outfit in the Opera reminded me tangentially of two unrelated things. Firstly her look brought to mind Elizabeth Connell who sadly died recently. But also of the costume allegedly worn by Mary, Queen of Scots for her execution – a black gown hiding a Catholic-martyr red dress beneath. And Zerbinetta has something of the Sally Bowles about her.

And clichéd though it might be, the sight of Ariadne and Bacchus walking off into the night was simple and effective.

It all worked and I don’t think Arlaud deserved the boos when he came on stage.

The conductor, Christian Thielemann, is more than an accomplished interpreter of Strauss and he led the Staatskapelle Dresden throughout with great distinction and clear love for the score. And while it might be almost impossible to judge this from a live stream to a laptop, there was clearly a strong connection between the pit and the ensemble on stage.

So a night of firsts. Ms Fleming’s first ever Ariadne, and I hope that one day I will see her perform the role live on stage. For me, my first ever live-to-laptop streaming. And it’s definitely something I will be doing again. I can’t say it will ever replace the thrill, excitement and atmosphere of a live performance but time and money preclude me from attending every thing I might want to see.

And I heartily recommend that everyone sign up for medici.tv.

A great find.

Stop Everything. And Listen. Especially To The Timpanist.

In Beethoven, Classical Music, Review on October 22, 2011 at 12:13 pm

Review: Symphonies 1-9 & Overtures. Katerina Beranova, Lilli Paasikivi, Robert Dean Smith, Hanno Müller-Brachmann. Gewandhausorchester Leipzig and Chorus & Ricardo Chailly.

It’s difficult not to turn to clichés regarding Chailly’s recording of Beethoven’s symphonies and overtures. First of all, it’s simply remarkable that Chailly has not attempted them before – either individually or complete and I understand that the set is made up of live recordings made over the last three years.

Quite simply I have listened to almost nothing else since I downloaded the set from iTunes. And I have listened to them from beginning to end – from the first chord of the First Symphony in C Major to the closing and triumphant bars of the Choral – without interruption and without repeating or skipping a track.

Chailly’s isn’t the only set of complete Beethoven symphonies I own. Naturally I have Karajan’s recordings of 1963 and 1967 as well as Rattle’s with the Vienna Philharmonic, Zinman’s superlative set with the Tonhalle Orchestra and Hogwood’s performances on original instruments. And I also have individual performances by the likes of Fricsay – his recording of the Eroica is one of my all-time favourites – Furtwangler, Haitink, Barenboim etc. However without exception I have not listened to any of the sets from beginning to end in one sitting.

Not until now. Not until Chailly and the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig of which he has been Kapellmeister since 2005.

From the very beginning it’s clear that Chailly and the players have an incredibly strong and special relationship. Not only does the orchestra play with absolute precision, but Chailly draws from them a wealth of orchestral colour, breadth of dynamic range – including real diminuendi not simply a sudden cut in the volume – and precise yet flexible ensemble playing that immediately sets these performances apart. There is an intensity, a muscularity and vigour in the playing throughout this recording that is not matched with such consistency elsewhere in my opinion.

This isn’t the place to go through each of the symphonies individually. The devil is in the detail and discovering that detail is part of the wonder.

But as I said, from the first chord of the opening Symphony in C Major Chailly’s approach has a real clarity. For Chailly, the pizzicato strings don’t merely pluck the note, they actively attack it. For conductor and orchestra this clearly isn’t just a symphonic successor to ‘Papa’ Haydn, but a completely new sound world.

My old university lecturer once told me that what Beethoven did in his symphonies was to liberate the wind and brass instruments and in some cases used them almost like a military band. And I think that this is something that is clearest in these performances. The woodwind and brass do seem more ‘liberated’ than in other sets. I don’t mean the solo elements stand out more – that is true of the other performances – but rather, and this is particularly true in the first five or so symphonies, they are not merely ‘adding padding’, but actively contributing to the overall collage of sound. Listen to the trumpets in the Second Symphony for example.

Chailly’s choice of tempi has been remarked on in some reviews. Granted his speeds are generally on the swift side – even in the slow movements – but because of the attention to detail and the virtuosity of the playing, the speeds never seem hurried but instead, seem to grow out of an increasing sense of momentum that drives the individual symphonies through their respective movements to the last dying sounds as he lowers his baton after each and every finale. And of course his generally faster tempi add to the sense of drama that is delivered in spades in each symphony and every overture.

Take Chailly’s interpretation of the ‘Eroica’ for example. From the opening chords it’s almost like the French are almost at the gates of Vienna as Chailly shines a light on the more martial aspects of the symphony. It’s literally more ‘cannon shot’ than simple chords at the beginning and this immediately creates a sense of urgency and tension. But despite the tempo, the music doesn’t sound rushed – no notes or phrases are snatched – and Chailly delivers each and every of Beethoven’s carefully marked sforzandi with great precision. And listen to how Chailly brings out the horn line in the fugal passage in the development section. Marvellous. And for Chailly, the dissonant trumpet that follows almost immediately is given equal weight without being given the undue prominence accorded it by other conductors. The second movement, Marcia funebre, is beautifully judged – Chailly clearly choosing a tempo that could literally be marched to. You can almost imagine the flag-draped coffin on the gun carriage and crowds of people looking on and in some ways reminded me of the wind symphonies and other music of French Revolutionary composer, Gossec. Perhaps for me the Scherzo that follows isn’t the Allegro Vivace that I would have liked but instead of speed Chailly points out the delicacy and humour of the writing. The final movement is simply one long whirlwind of fantastic music making.

And there is a real transparency too. Chailly skilfully ensures that all the orchestral detail and the inner parts are given equal weight. In the Allegretto of the Seventh Symphony for example, Chailly weaves the wonderfully delicate counterpoint together without sacrificing any of the thematic material one over the other. And the first orchestral tutti is quite simply breathtaking before Chailly winds down the sound with incredible mastery into the second subject with no sense of the awkward ‘gear change’ that happens in some performances.

While the first eight symphonies are incredible in their own right, the crowning glory of the set is the Ninth – Choral – Symphony. From the opening bars, where Chailly allows the music to emerge almost from nothing the orchestra’s playing sweeps everything out of its path under Chailly’s relentless grip on the tempo and dynamics. The third movement, Adagio molto e cantabile, is a heart-stopping moment and Chailly draws even greater warmth from the strings and woodwind without ever becoming indulgent. The singers – Katerina Beranova, Lilli Paasikivi, Robert Dean Smith, Hanno Müller-Brachmann – and chorus are exemplary in the final movement and how delightful to hear Paasikivi again after seeing her as Fricka in Hamburg in April earlier this. Chailly magnificently marshals and drives the increased forces into the final section, drawing disciplined singing from everyone involved to bring the symphony and the set to a brilliant close.

The performances of the overtures included in the set are equally well performed, with Chailly according them their symphonic due. Pace for not writing more on them individually but they are brilliantly performed.

So what of the timpanist? It’s often difficult not to point out individual soloists in each of the sections of any orchestra but here especial credit and mention must go to the timpanist. If my research is correct it is either a gentleman by the name of Tom Greenleaves or Matthias Müller. The playing and timbre are exceptional – something I imagine is not often said of timpanists but it needs to be said here. And thrillingly he is giving a masterclass in percussion during the orchestra’s time at the Barbican.

And the entire set is wonderfully supported by the warm and generous acoustic in which it is recorded.

While I am fortunate to have tickets to see Chailly and The Gewandhausorchester perform the Third and Eighth symphonies in London very soon, I will be making it a priority to visit Leipzig as soon as to hear them on their home turf.

In the meantime, and regardless of how many different recordings of Beethoven’s symphonies you own, buy this set.

Lock the door. Turn off your phone. Make a pot of tea. And listen.

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