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Posts Tagged ‘Waltraud Meier’

Elektra-fied

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Women on the verge.

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on February 2, 2014 at 5:30 pm

Review – Elektra (Semperoper, Dresden, Friday 31January 2014)

Elektra – Evelyn Herlitzius
Chrysothemis – Anne Schwanewilms
Klytämnestra – Waltraud Meier
Orest – René Pape
Aegisth – Frank van Aken
Companion of Orest – Peter Lobert
The Maids – Constance Heller, Gala El Hadidi, Simone Schröder, Rachel Willis-Sørensen, Nadja Mchantaf
The Overseer – Nadine Secunde
Young Servant – Simeon Esper
Old Servant – Peter Lobert

Director – Barbara Frey
Bühnenbild – Muriel Gerstner
Costumes – Bettina Walter
Lighting – Gérard Cleven
Dramaturgy – Micaela v. Marcard

Sächsischer Staatsopernchor Dresden
Sächsischer Staatskapelle Dresden

Christian Thielemann (Conductor)

If the rest of Richard Strauss’ 150th anniversary maintains the standard of Semperoper’s Elektra, then 2014 will be more than a memorable year.

It will be a fitting homage.

The singing, the playing and – for me at least – the production came together almost perfectly.

In terms of the singing, if there was ever an opera equivalent of Fantasy Football League (please can someone invent it) then this cast was a ‘dream team’.

Is there a soprano on stage today who is a more convincing Elektra than Evelyn Herlitzius?

In compete command of her vocal technique, her rigorously disciplined instrument permitted her to take vocal risks that, combined with some finely tuned acting, made her characterisation so visceral. Yet at the same time she balanced it with an innate and musically intelligent sense of shade and colour. I don’t think I’ve heard the Recognition scene sung with such emotional and musical inteliigence, both Herlitzius and Pape completely committed to and immersed in that wonderful moment.

Therefore I find it incredible that we haven’t seen Ms Herlitzius in London. But then the same can be said of Ms Pieczonka in our capital and not forgetting that Anne Schwanewilms has only recently made her debut at the Met.

Such a towering performance from so physically slight a singer could not but cast a shadow on the other members of the cast.

But only slightly.

Anne Schwanewilms’ Chrysothemis contained all the trademark intelligence and eloquence that this soprano brings to Strauss. Her bright, piercing soprano for the most part sailed over the orchestra and as with her troubled sister, Schwanewilms is an instinctive actress. She portrayed both the often-missed vulnerability of this character as well as her exasperation and desperation. Her final return to the stage dressed as the never-to-bride, even at that moment conveying the forlorn hope that she might marry even after the double murder, and punctuated with the most heartrending calls for her brother will remain with me for a long time.

Who doesn’t admire and love Waltraud Maier both as singer and actress? Just as her Waltraute for Barenboim, Ms Meier’s Queen demonstrated that this soprano is a seasoned veteran who brings a real intellectual depth as well as formidable interpretive skills to any character she portrays.

Onto this Klytämnestra, Maier overlaid a real sense of fragility onto the more expected paranoia. Her scene with her daughter not only laid bare these feelings as well as her wariness and fear of Elektra, but also the unbreakable Mother-Daughter bond not often seen in productions. Just before the scene ended there was an unexpected moment of tenderness between the two that made Klytämnestra’s final exit, clearly accepting her fate as foreseen by her own daughter, all the more chilling especially as it was as if she was entering a tomb.

However at points it seemed as if Ms Maier was too immersed in the character. Her projection dimmed to too much of a whisper as if internalising only to herself the emotional journey the queen was going through.

It was also wonderful to hear René Pape in the role of Oreste. His dark timbre was perfect, suitably grave yet burnished and I have to admit in a production of generally small gestures his acting was powerful.

Where other productions of Elektra are often let down, the principals here were brilliantly supported by the rest of the ensemble. If I had to single out one other member of the cast then it would be the Fifth Maid of Nadja Mchantaf. Velvet-toned and even throughout her range she brought a real sense of dimension to this short-lived role and is definitely one to watch.

And in the pit, Christian Thielemann was magnificent, marshalling singers and orchestra with incredible authority and knowledge of the score. I personally think his affinities lie closer to Strauss than Wagner, and last night only confirmed that belief.

From the very first notes, he drew exemplary and confident playing from the orchestra. Where some conductors miss or submerge the detail in the mistaken belief that Elektra should simply assault the eardrums, Thielemann uncovered the lightness amidst the darkness and transparency within Strauss’ sometimes ‘over-orchestrated’ textures. And while he never let us forget that this is the composer’s most expressionist work, he celebrated the lyricism imbued both in the soaring melodies and motifs and similarly he was also not above judging when the orchestra – dominating the emotional mood with a motif or theme – rose over the singers.

More so than I’ve heard in previous productions of Elektra, Thielemann was not scared to allow the music to breathe, unfettering phrases and just as importantly seeking out the silences which are so essential in creating that sense of impending dread far more effectively than a hack and thrash battle through to the end.

It might not have been to everyone’s taste but I enjoyed the fresh perspective of Barbara Frey’s production, her first for Semperoper.

Let’s not forget that Elektra – both for Hofmannsthal and originally for Euripides – is ultimately a family tragedy. This was Frey’s focus but she also suggested new perspectives and interpretations.

For this director Klytämnestra may have wielded the axe, but all three women were complicit in Agamemnon’s death.

Elektra for example isn’t dishevelled and abandoned. Rather, in a dress more suited for an evening of revelry than the mourning weeds she more often dons in productions, she is no outcast.

Chrysothemis’ appearance from the very beginning not only reinforces her role as go-between but also voyeur but her final appearance in that extravagant wedding dress again hinted at a more secure position within the household.

And this was was a production of small gestures and actions. It was like watching a slow fuse burn and in some ways reminded me of Almodovar. Small gestures and tics – like Klytämnestra’s rubbing of her arm, Chryosthemis raising her arm in despair, the way the Maids hunched protectively together – replaced the histrionics.

And Frey had clearly spent time with the singers. As well as the Mother-Daughter relationship, Frey and the singers also re-examined other pivotal moments.

There was a surprising sexuality to Frey’s Elektra. Her flirting with Aegisth for example hinted at something darker in her personality. And as she tried to persuade her sister to commit the murder, in that moment as she caressed Chrysothemis, she morphed into lover and future husband. The look of subsequent horror on Chrysothemis’ face isn’t only the result of thoughts of matricide but also – perhaps – seeing a side of her sister she wished she hadn’t.

The aforementioned Recognition scene was built not only on the singing and orchestral playing under Thielemann, but also the direction on stage. This wasn’t an emotional roller coaster or brutal revelation that it sometimes is. After the initial shock Elektra and Orest rediscovered their childhood love. I, for one wasn’t jarred by the use of children as their younger selves and the way Herlitzius and Pape acted with one another – ending as it did with their foreheads press together as if accepting their own fates – was beautiful. Orest’s seeming reluctance to commit murder was similarly well observed and even Elektra’s final ‘dance’ was more in her own mind’s eye than for the audience.

And by keeping all the violence – including the brutal murder of the Fifth Maid – off the stage, Frey force the audience to focus on the main characters as well as the music and thereby distilling the emotions created even further.

Even the set was suggestive. The decorative balcony, the clothes of the main characters were reminiscent of the era of Strauss and Hofmannsthal themselves. Yet it was clearly a home in transition. The hole in the wall where Elektra concealed herself, the spare paneling against the wall and piled on the floor indicated to me the final stages of redecoration. it was as if they were trying remove any evidence of Agamemnon himself but ultimately had failed. For above their heads was the motto Justitia fundamentem regnorum – loosely translated as ‘Justice is the foundation of kingship’. An all too ominous aide memoire – none of them could neither escape the murder committed nor, with the accompanying lion’s head motif of the house of Atreus above it the spectre of Agamemnon himself.

And while the lighting was for the most part simple there was a single moment of breathtaking beauty – that moment when Orest first appears. Suddenly the house is dark except for a single beam of moonlight cascading into the house from one side which – for whatever reason – reminded me of the light in the Secessionsgebäude in Vienna.

Yet for all this, at no point did the production overpower the music making. Rather it added to the whole as an equal partner.

And it was this equilibrium between all the parts – singers, players, conductor and director – which made this Elektra so magnificent and memorable.

Stemme Shrinks Then Soars

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

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

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

Royal Opera Chorus
Staatskapelle Berlin

Daniel Barenboim (Conductor)

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

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

Astounding.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lucky for us Schager set his watch correctly.

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

So finally to the two leading ladies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally to Daniel Barenboim. Genius. Simply genius.

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

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

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

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

It was humbling.

Flawed in High Definition

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on February 14, 2012 at 8:30 am

Götterdämmerung, The Metropolitan Opera (11 February 2012)

Three Norns – Maria Radner, Elizabeth Bishop, Heidi Melton
Siegfried – Jay Hunter Morris
Brunnhilde – Deborah Voigt
Waltraute – Waltraud Meier
Hagen – Hans Peter König
Gunther – Ian Paterson
Gutrune – Wendy Bryn Harmer
Alberich – Eric Owens
Woglinde – Erin Morley;
Wellgunde – Jennifer Johnson Cano
Flosshilde – Tamara Mumford

Metropolitan Opera Chorus
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
Conductor – Fabio Luisi
Director – Robert LePage
Set Designer – Carl Fillion
Lighting Designer – Etienne Boucher
Costumer Designer – Francois St-Aubin
Video Image Artists – Lionel Arnoud

Having seen the Met’s production of Die Walküre live I decided, due to time restraints, to experience the final instalment of Robert LePage’s production through the medium of cinema. Live HD transmissions are proving a bit of a success for the Met and I was intrigued to see how opera would translate to the big screen.

Personally I don’t think anything beats a live performance but clearly watching a live broadcast has its advantages similar to those when watching opera on DVD – you have the best seat in the house and, if the director is worth his salt, the advantage of not missing a single moment of the unfolding drama.

LePage’s production remains dominated by his mechanical set and in his introduction before the curtain went up Peter Gelb, in a well-prepped speech clearly written by his PR team tried to convince that LePage’s production was a combination of Old World and New and was, in fact, something that Wagner would have approved. I have no doubt that Wagner – with his obsession with modern technology – would have been intrigued by LePage’s intention but, with his equal if not overriding passion with both the importance of singing and acting, perhaps he too would have been left more than a little nonplussed.

As I said when I wrote about Die Walküre, the entire production is subsumed by the mechanical set, overshadowed by its hundreds of tonnes of steel, which don’t so much dominate the entire proceeding as suffocate them. Reviews of Götterdämmerung maintained that LePage had finessed his manipulation of the planks and that they had taken a less obtrusive role compared to in the first three operas. To be honest – and perhaps this was because of watching the production in a cinema with its close-ups – I didn’t feel that at all. The set was almost like an extra character that for the most part simply distracted especially as the singers continued – for the most part – to interact with it gingerly. I still remember Deborah Voigt’s fall on her first stage entrance on the first night of Die Walküre but all hats off to the Rhinemaidens who made it all look so effortless although it took me a while before I could relax as they slid down the stage and not think they were going to hit their heads.

Lionel Arnoud’s projections, a critical element to keep LePage’s production alive and bind the narrative, were an odd mix of hallucinogenic wallpapers and non-descript animated scenes that wouldn’t have looked out of place on my laptop. However they didn’t distract too much and there were some nice touches – the ravens in the final act for example.

Singing above all of this was a pretty strong cast. Jay Hunter Morris – as was repeatedly made clear a late stand-in for Gary Lehman – was an impressive Siegfried. It’s difficult to know because I was in a cinema whether or not the sound was ‘assisted’ in the sense that carefully placed microphones are going to ensure the right balance between singer and orchestra, but he clearly had the heft for the cinema-attending audience. He managed to pace himself and there were only occasional signs of strain in his Third Act scene. But while his voice was equally clear and resonant and there were times when I did wish there was a little more colour and inflection in his vocal line. At times his delivery seemed to verge on the bland but I hope that as he develops this role that will change.

Deborah Voigt’s Brunnhilde – one of the most anticipated and analysed debuts in this role for a while I would imagine – had clearly developed in the role since Die Walküre. Interestingly when interviewed during the interval by Patricia Racette she discussed how Götterdämmerung was her preferred opera in the trio in which Brunnhilde appears as Siegfried lies uncomfortably high for her voice. I have to admit that she did give a compelling performance in Götterdämmerung and clearly she – I don’t think I can credit LePage with this considering the lacklustre direction and ‘stand-and-deliver’ style of Die Walküre – had thought deeply about the role and has always been, in my opinion, an intelligent and thoughtful singer-actress. The trouble with HD however is that it does zoom in which isn’t a luxury that is afforded you in the opera house even with the best theatre glasses. For me this meant that every nuance was exaggerated which at times was distracting. I still believe that Brunnhilde is not a role that sits easily within Voigt’s voice and while there didn’t seem to be the level of strain that she suffered in Die Walküre there were still moments when he voice took on a slightly metallic, single dimensional role. However overall this was a strong performance and it would be interesting to see how Voigt handles a complete cycle.

The surprise of the evening for me was the Gutrune of Wendy Bryn Harmer. More normally a cipher or a casting afterthought, Bryn Harmer has a rich vibrant soprano and made the character incredibly human, married with excellent technique. In her interval interview she professed an ambition to sing Sieglinde which would be something to hear. Iain Paterson as her brother was similarly well cast, delivering a believably flawed character and strong singing.

Similarly Hans Peter König and Eric Owens as Hagen and Alberich respectively were impressive. König exuded a calculated malevolence coupled with an intelligent musical performance. The ‘duet’ between father and son – Owens being equally vocally strong and a thoughtful actor – was one of the highlights of the evening even if the direction was slightly awry.

The Norns and the Rhinemaidens – were also impressive. The ensemble singing was closely knit without weak link in the casting. I have to profess to a small chuckle as the Norns rose, Jedi-like, from under the stage. Complete with their hooded gowns they would not have looked out of place in George Lucas’ Star Wars. But they gave a very credible performance and sang beautifully. Similarly, the three Rhinemaidens managed the perfect balance of flirtatiousness and what I always think is gentle malevolence and again, the ensemble singing was superb.

However the highlight of the evening was Waltraud Meier as Waltraute. She brought an intelligence and humanity to the role that made that single scene the most mesmerising of the whole performance in a way I have not seen in Götterdämmerung before. Ms Meier is of course a seasoned performer and an expert interpreter of some of Wagner’s greatest female roles – her Ortrud in Munich and her Isolde in Paris are particularly memorable – and her performance as Waltraute, bringing out the ‘humantiy’ of the role and demonstrating through her entire performance how far the Gods had fallen was truly remarkable. For a moment it lifted the entire opera.

Fabio Luisi has stepped in at the Met after Levine cancelled due to ongoing health problems. I couldn’t quite put my finger on his conducting style in the first act but I am indebted to fellow blogger @The Wagnerian for hitting the nail on the head – “late Verdi without la passione”. Precisely. I missed Levine’s drive and bite.

Overall however LePage’s interpretation of Götterdämmerung was as flawed for me as was his Die Walküre. The staging itself continued to dominate and while in the latter there as some method to his mechanical obsession in Götterdämmerung, where LePage had either run out of creative steam with his own creation or was trying – a little to late – to compensate the end result was even less compelling. In truth – as was the case with Keith Warner’s production at Covent Garden – perhaps seeing LePage’s Ring in its entirety once the novelty has faded, might enable me to see beyond ‘the machine’. But for now the staging remained too obtrusive and the directing of the characters seemed more secondary if not – thank goodness – the afterthought that it seemed in Die Walküre.

And seeing Götterdämmerung as a live HD transmission had both advantages and disadvantages. Clearly the quality of the broadcast and the sound is impressive but you do miss the atmosphere and excitement of being in the audience. Also if the director is worth his salt you do not miss a moment of the action. But what you do not see the entirety of the staging for, of course, the director only lets you see what he wants you to see. In this case, LePage wanted to make sure, it seemed, that the staging itself got ‘star billing’.

Additionally the intense focus on the singers as individuals detracts from the overall sense of an ensemble. No matter how fast the camera is, it cannot compensate for the speed in which – sitting in the theatre itself – the viewer can absorb an entire scene and the characters motivations in a nanosecond.

However I have to admit that I have been nibbled by the HD bug and will return again for Dessay in the Met production of La Traviata in April. But for now, LePage and his Ring remain less human and more machine.

2011. The Magic. The Mishaps. The Future.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

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