Posts Tagged ‘Wagner’

Kaufmann der König

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on February 19, 2013 at 1:39 pm

I have to admit that I have taken rather longer than most to appreciate Jonas Kaufmann.

While his debut at the Met as Siegmund was, as I said at the time, on the whole impressive, he didn’t always have the heft nor complete mastery of the vocal range required. I am not fortunate enough to be able to get to Manhattan to see his debut as the lead in Parsifal but – avoiding reviews as much as I can – the Twittersphere is alive with plaudits. Sadly I have to wait until March to experience it in high definition in the cinema but I am definitely more excited by this Parsifal than others that I have attended. Suffice it to say I find it a difficult opera.

However here is a disc that demonstrates that he is a singer – and in particular a Wagner tenor – of both vocal prowess and musical intelligence.

This recital doesn’t cover old ground in terms of segments of Wagner included in his previous disc – here he performs the In Fernem Land in the unedited version for example – and the extracts from the operas are chosen with intelligence.

The recital opens with that magical moment in Die Walküre when Siegmund is left alone to consider his fate as he awaits the dawn in Hunding’s abode. Rhythmically alert brass and agitated strings create an immediate sense of tension and his opening entry is full-bodied and eloquent. Each and every word is crystal clear and he switches to sustained lyricism with ease at ein Weib sah’ ich, wonnig und hehr. The dynamic control into Wälse! Wälse! is impressively handled yet I do think that the second cry of Wälse is a tad indulgent and you can even perceive a slight flutter in Kaufmann’s singing as he pushes on slightly too long. But a peevish criticism I admit as it remains electrifying. And again at Selig schien mir der Sonne Licht Kaufmann’s trademark lyricism. Throughout the monologue Kauffman slips from the more declamatory, heroic passages to the lyrical sections with incredible ease.

Next from father to son for Siegfried’s Daß der mein Vater nicht ist. Over gentle murmuring string, Kaufmann again launches into this monologue and against effortlessly slips between dialogue and lyricism. How touchingly and in hushed tones he sings Das kann ich nun gar nicht mir denken … ein Menshenweib for example. Anyone who has read Eve Rieger’s recent book will relish interpreting the ‘masculine vs feminine’ phrase construction at this point I would imagine.

The mastery of Wagner’s orchestration is very much to the fore at this point and beautifully played by the orchestra of the Deutschen Oper Berlin. All credit in particular to the cor anglais player – as a former oboist I know how difficult it is to play badly and the player does so magnificently!

But personally the highlight of the disc is Rienzi’s Allmächt’ger Vater, blick herab! I cannot remember the last time I listened to this sung – or performed for that matter – with such rapt intensity. Kaufman’s first entry is a study in vocal control both dynamically and legato phrasing which continues through his delivery of the first iteration of ‘Rienzi theme’ and maintain the emotional momentum through its repeat and into the closing bars. Marvellous.

Next is Tannhäuser’s Rome Narration that demonstrates the rich texture and colouring of Kaufmann’s voice throughout its range. Kaufmann’s musical intelligence ensures that he moulds what can sometimes be a relentlessly difficult monologue to maintain in terms of interest and momentum into a compelling, dramatic scene. Just listen to the way he bends and colours his voice at Hast du so böse Lust geteilt. Simply chilling and again menacingly underpinned in the orchestra and in stark contrast to the lustful – full throated – singing with which Kaufmann closes the extract.

Kaufmann returns to a nobler, more lyrical characterisation for Walther’s Am stillen Herdin Winterszeit before ending his operatic selection with the full Grail Narration from Lohengrin. He captures perfectly the ‘other-worldly’ sense of the opening bars and matches vocally the timbre Wagner creates in the orchestra, once again floating effortlessly to the top notes even when singing in the most hushed tones. Wagner may have decided to cut the second stanza but Kaufmann makes a compelling argument for its inclusion if it can always be sung with such purpose and grandeur.

And in both Tannhäuser and Lohengrin, Kaufmann is most ably supported by Markus Brück and the chorus of the Deutschen Oper Berlin.

And so to Kaufmann’s performance of the Wesendonck Lieder. Call me a traditionalist – and much as I wanted to love these performances as much as the extracts from Wagner’s operas – after repeated listening I came to an opposite conclusion. Do not misunderstand me. Kaufmann sings this extended love letter to Mathilde Wesendonck beautifully, with great eloquence and sensitivity.

Yet they do not convince. It has nothing to do with the songs being sung by a tenor – not even one as talented as Kaufmann – but simply that they lose some sense of their sensuality and purpose overall. But there is no disputing that Kaufmann makes an almost convincing argument for their performance by a male voice here but not quite enough. Not even the Tristan-inspired Im Treibhaus where the orchestra pull out some incredibly transparent and chamber-like playing can ultimately convince.

But not surprisingly they do not detract from what is an impressively performed and constructed recital disc. And as I have already mentioned, the orchestra of the Deutschen Oper Berlin play with great beauty and conviction. All the more so surprising as I have in the past not rated Donald Runnicles. Perhaps his rapport with this orchestra is greater than with any other as he does coax incredibly playing, colour and warmth from this ensemble.

But this is very much Kaufmann’s disc. It furthers his position as the leading Wagner tenor performing at the moment. And if all accounts of his Parsifal at the Met are correct, then his position is cemented as tenor regnant.


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.

More Circus Clown Than Ring Master – An Open Letter To Robert LePage

In Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on April 23, 2012 at 8:34 pm

Dear Mr LePage

I start off with a series of confessions.

First, I have not seen your interpretation of Wagner’s Ring Cycle in its entirety. Not yet. But I have seen Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung. The first on Opening Night in New York as well as the second performance in that run, and Götterdämmerung courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera’s excellent HD Live Season.

Second. I am a Wagner fan. Perhaps a ‘purist’ but not a ‘cranky’ operagoer. But a great admirer of Wagner and of opera as a whole in it entire dramatic sweep.

Third. I have seen a few complete Ring cycles live, most recently in San Francisco and more than a few on DVD including Kasper Holten’s Ring from Copenhagen and Chereau’s thought-provoking interpretation. And I have seen individual performances from the cycle in both the United States and Europe including the Schenk production in New York.

Therefore I read your interview in The New York Times with interest and increasing anger.

Of course any production will have its detractors. Its naysayers. The people who simple refuse to ‘get with the project’. But I find your position, well, faintly ridiculous and offensive. And I don’t only mean your criticism of the ‘purists’ and ‘cranks’ many of whom, I might incidentally add, funded your project through the benefices of their sponsorship and support.

And of course I stand corrected if somewhere along the line The New York Times has in some way misquoted you. It happens.

But your argument, in fact your rearguard defence given in the Met’s ‘unadorned office’, simply does not quite gel. Not for me.

On reading, and re-reading the article in question, I was struck by your claim that after focusing on each opera individually, you can now more easily ‘envision’ the quartet.

I have worked in the industry and seen some of the best producers and directors at their ‘business’. I have looked on as they have struggled to bring together sometimes disparate ideas together into one coherent narrative – and not always with total success. So I have to ask, did you not step back at any time and see Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung as a whole – ‘a package’ (Really? A package) – at any moment from after you put the phone down on Peter Gelb and said, “I’ll do it”?

Even on the most basic of production issues did you not check and redress in rehearsal (and I seem to remember that you were given a great deal of rehearsal time) that the projections could be seen on the singers’ bodies?

And most vitally has it really taken countless individual performances before you would concede and take action on the “groaning and grinding” of “that monster”? It’s almost arrogant to reach a solution that involves only moving them in the “less quiet moments in the score”. Thank goodness – I can almost hear you say – for Wagner’s ‘loud bits’.

And as for the direction of the singers, this is something that the majority of critics, bloggers and people who attended commented on. Direction. What direction? From before the very first Ring cycle was performed at Bayreuth, Wagner was very clear on the relationship of his music to the staging. And of the required acting ability of his singers. I am glad that Siegmund and Sieglinde are going to spend more of their time toward the front of the stage. My recollection was that they are already spending quite a lot of time at the front of the stage. It’s just that they aren’t being directed in what to do when they are there.

“People are protective”. Yes they are. But shame on you. Even amid all the stories swirling around about having to strengthen the stage and ongoing technical troubles there wasn’t a person in the auditorium on any given night – or in a cinema somewhere in the world – who didn’t give the production – and you – the benefit of the doubt.

And ‘false’ debate? If you are going to construct a 45-ton set of planks then expect debate. Welcome discussion. And listen. I don’t deny that giant transforming sets have been used elsewhere. But I can’t think of one before this that consumed everything before it – singers, orchestra, dramaturgy, narrative and originality.

I would argue that everyone who sits in the opera is there for the music. Focused on it. Music first. Production second. A good production enhances an opera. A fantastic production can result in greater and deeper understanding and insight. Opera is a combination of various elements including the music and the production. Funfairs and circuses provide spectacle, often using multi-ton machines that do creak and moan but for the very reason that it doesn’t matter if they do so. It doesn’t detract from the pipe-organ music of the ride.

But not at the opera. The audience can and does deal with, and accustom themselves to appropriate scene-changing noise. But your “monster” made that impossible.

As to your point that The Ring is ‘always dipped in these layers and layers of social-political stances’. It’s right and proper that directors should reinterpret Wagner and often they will look to their own society as well as the past to do so.

For them it magnifies the ideas of the Ring. It personalises it. But you didn’t magnify the ideas of The Ring. You smothered them. There was no personality or character in your bland interpretation. And by the way opera singers don’t only use their eyes to magnify the emotions they are experiencing. Ask them and you’ll find out it’s much more complicated than that.

And so to the ‘purists’ and the ‘cranky’ operagoers. I have never heard anyone I know – and I count myself sometimes as a cranky purist – say “We don’t want those people because they don’t know what opera is”.

The majority of those who go to the opera – however often – are well aware of the difficulties and dangers this art form is facing. Falling sponsorship, tighter budgets and the need to attract new and younger audiences.

Yes some people do sit there with scores. There’s nothing wrong with that by the way. But the majority of us sit back, listen and watch.

How absurd. How patronising. How insulting of the audience that you purport to entertain to dismiss them with a childish facial expression. Again. Shame on you.

Your Ring Cycle promised hope that it might meet some of these challenges head on and pose some questions. Sadly your patronising attitude just confirms one thing to me.

It was a vanity project. Yours. And Peter Gelb’s.

But well done. You did go back to the 19th century. You have created a modern take on a last-century folly.

A Very Shakespearean Wagner

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on July 13, 2011 at 9:09 pm

Lohengrin, Bayerische Oper, Munich, July 2011

• Kristinu Sigmundson – Heinrich der Vogler
• Lohengrin – Peter Seiffert
• Elsa von Brabant – Emily Magee
• Friedrich von Telramund – Evgeny Nikitin
• Ortrud – Waltraud Meier
• The Herald – Martin Gantner

• Director – Richard Jones
• Designer & Lighting – Ultz
• Conductor – Kent Nagano

The Nationaltheater in Munich, home of the Bayerische Oper, is a beautiful building. The impressive exterior, and marble halls hide an exquisite gold gilt auditorium contrasted with pinks and reds. It was the perfect setting for this memorable performance of Lohengrin.

Admittedly I initially came for this performance to see two of my favourite sopranos – Adrienne Pieczonka and Waltraud Meier – but on the night the role of Elsa was performed by American soprano, Emily Magee.

I best start with the production itself. This was by Richard Jones and his common production partner, the singularly-named Ultz. I’ve seen many productions directed by this pair. The most memorable was The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant at English National Opera. It was an unusual choice and, despite what many said, a brave and creative decision. If only ENO would take creative risks like that now rather than assuming or rather hoping that plucking a random director will work. Not only did Petra capture a real sense of ‘a time’ but Jones’ trademarks – attention to detail and most importantly, a real effort made to engage with and work with the singers to analyse their characters and develop real, tangible personalities – was evident throughout. And the same attention to detail shone through brightly in Munich.

The production itself was – to say the least – quirky, another Jones/Ultz hallmark – but enjoyable and thought-provoking. When it premiered it drew a great deal of criticism. I can’t pretend to have unlocked Jones’ intention so what I write here is my own interpretation.

This definitely wasn’t a ‘traditional’ production of Lohengrin. In a sense this was a ‘voyeurs’ production. From the start, even as the audience came into the auditorium, Jones had the action unfolding on stage. Before the prelude, a single draftsman working on a building plan; Ortrud alone before the Second Act; and finally a fully completed shell of a house, complete with flowery border. All that was missing was the white picket fence. But I’m pretty sure it was in the audiences imagination as it was so clearly in mine.

In a sense the stage was also ‘naked’. There was a single curtain backdrop towards the front of the stage to create the King’s court. As a result everything felt ‘temporary’ which of course is, in some ways, a theme of the opera. Lohengrin never intends to stay. He is merely the catalyst for events that need to happen to ‘cleanse’ Brabant.

Because in Jones’ mind, Brabant is a damaged place. The Orwellian Herald further underlined Brabant’s sinister aspect. Gottfried, Elsa’s brother is missing. After the prelude, the chorus shuffle on. The setting is anonymous. The costumes made hints at eras but nothing is clear, nor clean cut. The men are in branded Brabant jackets, some in suits, some in t-shirts. The women are similarly attired – only their multitude of A-line skirts skirts suggesting any sense of matronly uniformity. Only the main characters, and Telramund’s conspirators – in their sharp grey suits – stand out.

The King, with his sense of almost forced optimism is in sharp contrast to Telramund and Ortrud – the magnificent Waltraud Meier. With them Jones has gone beyond mere cyphers determined to take charge. Ably abetted by Meier and Nikitin, they are a couple of pure malevolence who stalk the stage. Indeed they are Macbeth-like in their calculated evil, and like their Shakespearean counterparts it is Otrud who until the last is the stronger of the two. A foil to Telramund’s own weakness and mental frailty.

Elsa, as expected, is detached, almost catatonic. But Jones delves deeper. From her first appearance, her shuffling gait as she carries white bricks across the stage and through the doors to the set concealed by the single backdrop of two doors below a set of arcane heraldic symbols says it all. Elsa is ‘damaged goods’ and suspected of murder. She carries a folded poster of her brother, like those used when a child is missing. No one is able to interrupt her catatonic march until she is forcibly restrained by one of the King’s guards. Even then she does not immediately register the reason.

And it is only when the entire stage is revealed that we understand the significance of the lone draughtsman. It is Elsa who, in her workman’s overalls, is building a home, the significance of which didn’t become clear to me until the final act.

Interestingly Jones downplays the arrival of Lohengrin himself. In other productions this is often the dramatic focus of the opening act. Granted, Lohengrin arrives carrying the necessary – and animatronic – swan, but this is not ‘a moment’ in the dramatic sense. Indeed, could they have made Lohengrin look any less the hero in his grey trousers with their silver stripe and blue shirt?

For Jones the attention is in the detail. There is no single dramatic moment in the first act. Even the attempt to burn Elsa at a hastily built stake has a surreal-like quality. Ortrud stalks the stage in her suit and management-look hair style, watching everyone. A sharp contrast to Elsa in her workman’s outfit. Women versus child. Telramund, with his overly excited manners, is a man on the edge. Dangerous. Lohengrin is not a hero. Rather he looks like an accidental tourist.

Even Telramund’s challenge, Lohengrin’s defence of Elsa’s honour and the ensuing sword fight had a strange detached, pantomime quality. Indeed the only act of real aggression is when the King rips the symbol of Brabant from Telramund’s coat and throws it on the ground at the close of the First Act.

Interestingly as the main curtain fell, the audiences response was polite and somewhat muted. But the characters had been set and, I believe, Jones deliberately lulled the audience into a false sense of security, almost making us, by extension, placid participants in the drama itself.

The Second Act opens, as I have already mentioned, with Ortrud alone, seated at the far side of the stage. She sits there like a coiled spring exuding menace and her thoughts are only broken when her husband storms in. He is clearly a broken man. Gone is the smart, buttoned-up noble of the preceding act. Here, shirt undone (and displaying Nikitin’s impressive tattoos), he stumbles and sways across the stage, every so often spying on events behind the backdrop through spy holes in the door. Jones does not have him depict anger as the key driver for revenge, but rather abject humiliation. Pulling a pistol from his pocket he attempts suicide, only to be stopped by Ortrud. Icily calm, she lays out their new plan to destroy both Lohengrin and Elsa. And here, Jones suddenly ratchets up the tension. The audience was suddenly rapt, pulled forward into the drama.

What followed – spurred on by the incredible vocal and acting talents of Meier and Nikitin – was momentous. Again I was drawn to a comparison with ‘the Macbeths’ in the evil motivation that drove them both. The interplay between husband and wife was electric. More than once Telramund attempted to hurt his wife and Ortrud’s reaction made it cleat that this was, at heart, an abusive relationship. And each time he failed. Not through weakness but because it was clear that she was in total control of him. Ortrud was all about control and Meier’s portrayal was faultless. Her call for revenge – to Wotan and Fricka – was chilling and again the only moment in the whole opera where Jones/Meier allowed the character to seemingly lose control.

This was the turning point in the drama and Jones now ratcheted up the momentum inexorably. The backdrop rose to reveal the house much closer to completion, Elsa surveying her creation. The subsequent scene between the two leading ladies – watched by Telramund – was brilliantly acted by Meier and Magee, with the former’s calculating approach to confuse and thereby befriend the bride-to-be all the more chilling by Ortrud’s stealthy movements.

The tension of wedding scene itself – and the confrontation between the key protagonists – was almost unbearable. Changed into her bridal gown, Elsa seemed to find a new inner strength, if only momentarily, as she faced up to Otrud, who once again stalked across the stage as if hunting prey. Typically the arrival of Lohengrin marks a shift in the balance of power as the hero takes the leads and sees off Ortrud. Not in Jones’ production. Again Lohengrin was made to seem weaker and – most tellingly – he played into Elsa’s own insecurities. Never have I seen an Elsa so unconvinced about being a bride.

The curtain went down and the audience – particularly when Meier appeared – went wild.

It was only during the Final Act, and the completion of the house, complete with bed, baby’s cot and high chair that the potential significance of Elsa’s building programme occurred to me. It was therapy. Therapy for Elsa to help her cope with the guilt of her lost brother. But it was also an act of atonement. Elsa building a home, and creating a family to replace him. Almost as if a house, family and child would make it all seem better. I don’t know if it was coincidental or not, but the picture of her missing brother was placed on the wall directly above the high chair. Jones’ attention to detail makes me think it was anything but that.

The Third Act played out traditionally – despite the almost comedic dance routine during the prelude – for the most part, bar two significant reinterpretations. First – and I accept that this is open to debate – it seemed to me that in the scuffle with Telramund, it is Elsa and not Lohengrin, that kills Ortrud’s spouse. To me this was a plausible and significant decision by Jones. First of all the death is accidental but secondly, Elsa now begins to unravel. Her retreat back into her original catatonic state is not so much to do with Lohengrin’s departure but her own association with death. As she is led onto the stage we are back at the beginning – Elsa being suspected of murder.

And secondly, neither Otrud nor Elsa die at the end. Lohengrin exits stage left and touchingly returns carrying ????. Elsa, momentarily revived by the return of her brother, slumps down onto a seat, once again withdrawn from the world. Ortrud, despite seeing the corpse of her dead husband, does not break down. She watches and continues to stalk.

And when the curtain closes it is Ortrud who has her her arm maternally around the young prince. But most chilling, the chorus all seated on the collapsed stage, putting pistols into their mouths.

Brabant has not been purified. Far from it. Brabant is in a worse place than at the start.

So, an incredibly thought-provoking production. Jones’ intellectual bent, his attention to detail, and his clear direction to all the singers never once threatened to swamp the story-telling. Instead it offered a fresh, and to me completely plausible reappraisal of the original story.

And the singers and chorus, so ably led by Nagano in the pit, rose to the occasion. The chorus – despite some dodgy acting – were superb. Their sense of ensemble and precision was brilliant. Nagano led the orchestra and singers like a master, bringing out a burnished quality in the orchestral playing – especially the brass – that was so sadly lacking when I attended The Ring in San Francisco a few weeks ago. Runnicles take note.

Kristinu Sigmundson as Heinrich der Vogler and the Herald of Martin Gantner were clear voiced, with excellent diction. However it was the four principals who made the evening not great – but in my opinion – momentous.

Peter Seiffert is a fine Lohengrin although not a strong actor. He has both the heft and stamina for the role and while he clearly sailed through the role, there were times when a little more finesse and lightness in the vocal line would have made a real difference.

The Friedrich von Telramund of Evgeny Nikitin was simply amazing. He captured perfectly how unbalanced the character really is, portraying with clarity his breakdown from First to Third act. His interactions with Meier – especially in the Second Act – were, as I said, almost Shakespearean in their delivery. Again he is able to carry above the orchestra and s attention to the words, the light and shade of his voice, made his Telramund a real character – not simply a man after power but a man whose pursuit of power was for evil.

Emily Magee had a shaky start but she did not warrant the booing at the end. Initial problems with intonation slowly disappeared so that by her confrontation with Ortrud she was in fine voice. And her acting was superb, capturing the vulnerability as well as the childishness of the character perfectly. At the end – and quite clearly the intention – this Elsa was not a girl to expire but rather to continue suffering.

But it was Waltraud Meier’s Ortrud who stole the evening. This Lady Macbeth in Wagnerian cloth was both consummate actress and superlative singer. Her mere presence on stage was enough to raise the temperature as she stalked and hunted out the other protagonists. Her abusive relationship with Telramund was at the core of her character and the decision not to kill her at the end was telling. Ortrud had – in all senses of the word – won. She had destroyed Elsa. Did not grieve the demise of her abusive husband. And she had the child. And her singing was simply breathtaking. I have seen her in other Wagnerian roles – Isolde in Paris for example – but Ortrud was made for her. The role sits comfortable in her range, and she negotiates the role with vocal precision married with clear and meaningful diction.

So a memorable, brilliant Lohengrin. Jones delivered an intelligent production that took a new but clearly deliberate look at the story. The characters – one and all – were three dimensional and not your typical stand-and-deliver cyphers. And the quality of the singing was of the highest standard. In fact I would go so far as to say that this was one of the most enjoyable and challenging productions I have seen in years.

So it does beg the question. If this can be achieved in Munich why can’t it happen in London, New York or San Francisco?

Die Walküre – The Misintentioned Mechanics of Lepage’s Production

In Classical Music, Opera on May 6, 2011 at 7:21 am

Listening to – Violin Concerto, Faust/Brahms

Having attended the opening night and second performance of Robert Lepage’s production of Die Walküre at the Met, there was something distinctly ‘baroque’ about the whole evening.

It seemed to me that rather than the stage machinery and technology providing a foundation to enhance the drama, in fact the whole production seemed to rely almost excessively on the mechanics and, in a sense, forsaking Wagner’s own concept of Gesamtkunst. That is not to say that the music, and the performances were not, on the whole, incredibly strong, but throughout both the evenings that I attended there was a real sense that mechanical intervention had been permitted – or instructed deliberately – to take precedence. Indeed it was interesting to hear the interval and post-performance chatter. It wasn’t about the performances, or Levine’s conducting, but it had a distinctly ‘How the devil did he do that’ quality.

In a sense Lepage’s production sought – as they did in baroque and early 18th century opera – to overwhelm the audience with feats of mechanical engineering. Of course, this may have worked well in operas of earlier generations when gods, flying chariots, and flying scenery changes offered a distraction from the recitative that alternated with the arias for which the audience even stopped talking. But in Wagner where the music is – to coin a distinctly 18th century term – through-composed, then it almost served as a distraction.

The use of a single, if impressive, mechanical plateau of moving planks also leant itself to restrictions. While the opening, driven forward by Levine’s knowledgeable conducting and love of the score, looked visually arresting as the projections morphed from a snow storm, via a forest to the wooden piles of Hunding’s hut, it offered little, if any, sense of atmosphere or real location. There was no sense of the singers interacting with their environment. Surprising and not a little disappointing considering that Hamburg’s recent production demonstrated that even a ‘big white empty space’ could invoke a sense of reality and emotional projection. For most of the evening, it felt like singing from the school of ‘stand and deliver’, with isolated moments when what would have seemed like perfectly acceptable actions simply felt wildly over-acted and almost inappropriate. I call to mind in particular Kaufman’s rushing about the stage swinging Northung.

Similarly the Second Act – where Deborah Voigt came a cropper on her first entry on the first night and which clearly unnerved her for the rest of the performance – felt similarly devoid of a sense of place. The use of an eye as Wotan recounted the events at led him to his current predicament to Brunnhilde had a definite Tolkiensian feeling and similarly, the previous scenes involving Fricka, literally glued to her rams’ chariot, would have had an almost comical feel had it not been for Stephanie Blythe’s mesmerising performance. I wondered if Fricka had been condemned to her chariot for fear of her own safety.

The Final Act began and ended ‘on Broadway’. The Valkyries arrived riding the automated, moving planks which elicited much applause from the New York audience, and until the final denouément, it felt like Lepage only threw in a few animations of falling snow (or was it clouds?) for fear that the concentration of the collective audience would wander. Clearly Lepage doesn’t know his Wagner audience. The snow, or clouds, were a distraction.

The final scene, seeing Brunnhilde – well an actress, not Voigt – upended on a cliff face was visually arresting but provided none of the sense of scale of the previous production by Schenk. This was not helped by the fact that Terfel and Voigt had to exit ‘stage left’ so that Wotan could rise in the lift backstage to hoist pseudo-Brunnhilde aloft. By that point it didn’t surprise and seemed a real sense of anti-climax as the picture was already in the public domain and therefore the reveal was spoiled.

And maybe because of the restrictions imposed by the stages, the lighting was incredibly simple, with an over-reliance on spotlighting the singers and, I admit, in one stunning moment, Northung plunged into the oak. Yet bar this specific instances, lighting seemed to be limited to two settings – on and off.

What was equally surprising were the costumes of the characters. From the chain mail of Siegfried and the breast-plated armour of Wotan and the Valkyrie to the distinctly pseudo-Celtic robes of Sieglinde, Fricka and Hunding, the costumes would not have looked out of place in Schenk’s production which this replaced.

In the same way, any direction of the characters was simply lacking. Again I put this down to a reliance on the mechanics to convey the narrative and sense of action. For the most part, and as I have mentioned above, the mantra seemed to be ‘stand and deliver’ but there were moments of genuine acting and it is worth noting which singers seemed keen to extend beyond the restrictions imposed on them. At the end of the first act, Kaufman and Westbroek engaged in some ‘real acting’ as they declared their love for one another, and Stephanie Blythe, despite being condemned to her horned throne, managed to convey a real sense of anger, frustration and – dare I say it – lost love for Wotan.

Yet despite the distractions provided by Lepage’s set, the singing and playing was of an incredibly high, if not consistent, standard. The main cast were: Jonas Kaufman (Siegmund); Eva-Maria Westbroek and Margaret-Jane Wray (Sieglinde); Peter Koenig (Hunding); Bryn Terfel (Wotan); Deborah Voigt (Brunnhilde) and Stephanie Blythe (Fricka). On the First Night Westbroek was replaced by Wray for the second and third acts.

This was, I believe, Kaufman’s debut at the Met, and considering his repertory roles in Germany, his first Siegmund. He was, on the whole, impressive. Having already sung principal roles in Tannhäuser, Lohengrin and Rienzi, Kaufmann has a real sense of Wagner’s vocal line, and a brilliant and bell-like upper register. However Siegmund pushes the vocal range for tenors at both ends of the scale, and there were occasional moments when Kaufmann’s delivery of lower notes grumbled. However this was a small rice to pay for a vigorous and beautifully sung Siegmund.

Eva-Maria Westbroek was also making her debut at the Met, yet Sieglinde is fast becoming a signature role for her. Despite her incapacity on the first night, she demonstrated hat she is one of the leading Sieglinde’s of today, comparable with the likes of Angela Denoke who performed the role in Hamburg. Incapacitated on opening night, on her second night, Westbroek revelled in the vocal lines, effortlessly rising against the orchestra when she needed to but also capable of dropping to a deathly whisper as required in the second act. Her final scene before departing to the woods was vocally secure, beautifully phrased and rang out over the orchestra. Without doubt she will on day move from an impressive Sieglinde to an equally defining Brunnhilde.

Margaret-Jane Wray stepped in at short notice on the first night and delivered a finely rendered character. She is a fine Wagnerian soprano, with the heft for the role although – perhaps because of the last minute nature of her appearance – she occasionally over-sang. Regardless, it was a brave and heart-felt performance.

Clearly Deborah Voigt as Brunnhilde was the Met’s main focus. In costume she dominated the marketing for the production, and overall she did not disappoint. Despite her first night slip, she delivered a worthy Brunnhilde. Her musicality, and understanding of the role were never in doubt and she has gleaming top notes with an almost even tone through her range. However, and perhaps even on the second night she was still wary of the set, on occasion her voice would possess an almost metallic, harsh tone, particular in the upper register. Brunnhilde may be a role that Voigt wants to sing, but perhaps it isn’t ultimately a role that suits her. There were occasions when her voice felt too small for the role and she physically seemed to struggle. She is not – and perhaps never will be – a Brunnhilde in the manner of Stemme or Dalayman.

Stephanie Blythe demonstrated that despite the limitations imposed upon her, she is one of the leading acting singers in the stage today. She delivered a three-dimensional Fricka who – unlike the equally engaging Fricka of Lilli Paasikivi – was still in love with her husband and demonstrated a frailty that is certainly not the norm for Fricka. However, considering my distinct feeling of Lepage’s deliberate disassociation from actually directing the singers, I credit Blythe with this interpretation. And as for her singing? Simply wonderful. Hers is a rich and resonant mezzo, even throughout with a luxuriant, warm tone. It was probably the single moment in the whole production when all eyes and ears were focused on the singing and acting. The staging had melted away. Superb.

So to Terfel and his Wotan. It was a convincingly rendered role and Terfel is a fine singer. But he left me wanting more. He was in good voice and his characterisation was finely tuned – indeed his scene with Fricka was a highlight for me – but there was a sense that he was not engaged with the production.

And finally, what of Levine? He is an incredible conductor. His love of Wagner and his understanding of the scale and architectural expanses of score enabled him not only to draw fine playing from the orchestra and in particular the brass, but he also provided that real sense of the seamlessness so critical in this opera. His was richly deserved cheer and ovation at the beginning, middle and end of both evenings.

Yet, despite the excellent conducting and fine – and occasionally brilliant singing – I left the Lincoln Center feeling – like the singers – disengaged from the evening’s performance. Individually the performances were good, but with the exception of Blythe and Westbroek, they were not magnificent. And Lepage seemed to forsake any real sense of direction or narrative, relying instead on the mechanics of his staging for effect. Sadly, Lepage had tried – and in my view – failed in his self-professed goal – to marry twenty-first century technology with Wagner’s Gesamtkunst – the unity of music, text and scenic setting.

Perhaps they should have just given Schenk’s traditional sets a new coat of paint.

Almost Perfect Wagner

In Classical Music, Opera on April 11, 2011 at 9:10 pm

Listening to – The Valkyrie, Goodall.

Every so often along comes a production where the performances, conducting, production and direction all come together almost perfectly. Die Walkure in Hamburg was just one such occasion. What was more, having seen their production of Götterdämmerung last year which had struggled in places, the success of Die Walkure was all the more satisfying.

First the cast. Although the production boasted Angela Denoke as Sieglinde and Katarina Dalayman as Brunnhilde, the cast as a whole was incredibly strong. Falk Struckman’s Wotan was an incredible presence. His diction – even for a non-German speaker such as myself – seemed incredibly clear and his voice was strong through every register. Admittedly he did crack on a few top notes, yet it made little difference as overall his musicality dominated. Never for have I been so enthralled by Fricka as I was in this production. I had never heard of Lilli Paasikivi before arriving in Hamburg and admittedly the scene between Wotan and his wife in the Second Act often leaves me impatiently waiting for it to end. But on this occasion I was completely enthralled. Paasikivi is an incredible artist. Vocally she has a rich, characterful mezzo and her interpretation of the role was invested with the right balance of vengeful wife and vainglorious goddess. Even her silent appearance at the end of the Act carried great weight – a real sense of judgement achieved and a wife satisfied. She is a mezzo I shall be following with great interest from now on. The Valkyrie – as a group – are a difficult bunch to cast I would imagine. The individual roles are tough vocally and Wagner clearly gives each of them a distinct character. On stage this often means that they don’t sing completely well as an ensemble and their acting is wooden. They come across as individuals only, vying for vocal attention rather than – it often seems to me – listening to one another when the music dictates it. Not so here. As soloists they shone when required but when the ensemble was demanded they melded their voices. And as with every other member of the cast, their diction was clarion-clear. The role of Hunding was well observed by Alexander Tsymbalyuk With just the right balance of menace and cruelty. It’s a thuggish role musically and was well performed. He even managed to convey the ‘whining’ at the close of the Second Act before Wotan dispenses with him. Christian Franz’s Siegmund – who was announced as indisposed before the opera started – in fact performed incredibly well. I would imagine that on a good day his tenor is bright and clear. On the night he vacillated between caution and then recklessness, but his phrasing was particularly fine and particularly in the second Act his rose to the challenge. Shame he wasn’t Siegfried in last year’s Götterdämmerung.

And of course, both Denoke and Dalayman were superb. I have seen both in other roles, most notably as Salome and Isolde respectively. On the evening Denoke had the slight edge but it was close. She is an intuitive and incredibly talented artist. Her voice cut through the orchestra, riding above the rich orchestration when required but equally delivering the purest sotto voce when needed. And her acting was simply brilliant. Over the course of two acts she went from broken women to lover to widow to heroine so convincingly that her final departure was almost too unbearable to watch. Naturally the audience loved her. From her first entry, Dalayman’s Brunnhilde was vocally to be reckoned with. She has the heft for the role but also the ability to float her voice. Again her performance in the Second Act helped me invest more attention than in the past, and she was superlative in the closing scenes. Occasionally she over-compensated vocally but only on few occasions. Alongside Nina Stemme she must be one of the leading Brunnhilde’s on the stage at the moment.

Simone Young was simply masterful. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until I returned home and listened to Goodall’s The Valkyrie. Immediately there was a connection between the two. Ms Young drew such a glorious sound from the orchestra. The opening, always a thrilling moment, was both dripping with menace as well as propelled forward by a real sense of desperation. The brass throughout were particularly fine and her handling of the closing scenes demonstrated a deep love of the score. Leb wohl was a heart-stopping moment.

But the biggest surprise for someone like me who has a love-hate relationship with Personnregie was the directing and set design by Claus Gruth, Chrstian Schmidt and Michael Bauer. First the directing. It was clear from the beginning that a great deal of thought and work had been done here. Often with Personnregie actions are performed merely – it seems – to fill space. Not so here. Each action was invested with meaning. The characters really did ‘live’ their roles. The stillness created in the opening scenes was almost suffocating. There was action only when it was required and with the minimum fuss or excessive display. Three moments particularly stuck in my mind. First, in his return, Hunding’s disdain for his wife when he realises not that she has drunk his beer, but rather than she has used his tankard. Secondly when Brunnhilde washes her face like an errant child before being sent to bed early as punishment and finally, once Wotan has consigned her to sleep, he picks up her boots and looks at them, smiles and shrugs, as if reminiscing over a private yet happy memory.

Similarly the stage design was simple yet nuanced. The opening scene at first seemed like it was being performed on an all-white disco dance floor. A single door moved around the stage with a small kitchenette and table and chairs set at opposite ends of the floor. By simply moving the door, the director managed to convey a real sense of Hunding’s home without being intrusive or distracting. When Siegmund and Sieglinde ‘stepped outside’ as it were, you really believed it. I wondered how they were going to ‘reveal’ the sword. Simple. Wotan – who from the start was seen to manipulate the characters on stage, simply placed it in situ. With the opening of the Second Act, the set that preceded it became clear. Now we were in Wotan’s studio. Along the walls were architectural models – including the set of Götterdämmerung – and propped up against the wall a model of the world, partially covered in bubble wrap. Nice touch. But on the table was a light-box with a model, complete with figures, of the First Act. As Fricka and Wotan argued they moved the figurines around before finally tumbling the set over. Brilliant.

The Third Act was the weakest of the three but didn’t detract from the overall production at all. Set in what seemed to me to be a run-down orphanage, the curtain rose on the Walkure as errant children pushing the bunk beds around the room. And not one of them vocally faltered. Form the final dialogue the room was cleared, with Wotan nicely giving one of the beds a helpful kick off-stage. Now the lighting director came into his own. The starkness of the room allowed for the intelligent use of light and shade and the space was convincingly used by the two protagonists. Even Loge’s fire at the end was subtly done.

So all in all as near perfect production of Die Walkure as I have seen. Comparable, if not stronger than Zambello’s production in San Francisco. But I will revisit that when I seen The Ring there later this summer.

So of course this begs the question, why don’t we see productions like this in London? For 60€ I saw a production that was incredibly intelligent and superbly performed. Not a week before I left ENO’s dreadful production of Ulisse in the interval. As I said above, I don’t mind Personnregie but Ulisse was a poor man’s interpretation and vocally sub-standard. It communicated none of the finesse of Montrverdi’s magnificent music but instead dreadfully affected and falsely strained.

Perhaps when Kasper Holten arrives at Covent Garden we will see more European sensibility adopted. Perhaps ENO will find it’s mojo again soon. Until then my money and time goes to Europe.

Now back to Goodall.

A Matter Of Choice

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

Listening to – Rodelinda (Il Complesso Barocco)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Confidence in his Tristan? I think not.

Enough said.


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

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