Monday, November 29, 2010

Guy Who Sounds Like a Woman . . Who Sounds Like . . .

Sam Shirakawa paid a visit to the Bode Museum on Museum Island in central Berlin to see an intriguing new production of Mozart's Titus:

Bode Museum Berlin
24 November 2010

Just when you think you've heard everything that has to do with up-scale vocalism, along comes Robert Crowe. The California native is a member of opera's smallest class of singers: a male soprano.

What sets a male soprano apart from a counter-tenor is the absence of testosterone in the voice. Real male sopranos produce a sound that is irrefutably "feminine." Crowe is the first male soprano I've heard, who not only fills these requirements but exudes that indefinable underlying strength which characterizes onnagata at its finest in Kabuki technique.

Crowe is currently one of five singers (all men) alternating as Sesto in a production of Mozart's Titus (La Clemenza di Tito), staged and conducted by Christoph Hagel in the ornate basilica of the recently refurbished Bode (BOH-deh) Museum on the so-called Museum Island in central Berlin. The "stage" consists of a catwalk, which bisects the rectangular basilica and runs about 120 feet from the hall's entrance area to a double-door revealing a baroque-style grand staircase. The orchestra is placed at one end of the platform. Artists make their way to and from the catwalk using both entrances. The audience is seated four rows deep on both sides of the catwalk. My place was situated near the rear of the band, where a space behind the horns functions as an access point for the performers. From this vantage point I could follow the music on the stands near me, watch the conductor, who kept an eye on the platform through a monitor, and see the stage.

I mention this peculiar (and highly effective) arrangement for the following reason: Sextus is usually sung by a female with dark-timbre. But Crowe's sound is so decisively feminine, that I thought surely he was lip-synching to a recording, when he uttered his first lines far away from my seat. It wasn't until he was singing beside me that I was fully convinced that he alone was doing the singing. At close quarters, Crowe sounds a bit like Kiri Te Kanawa on uppers circa 1969-1971. From a distance, his gripping sonority, puissant inflections and sensual vibrato recollect acoustic recordings of sopranos long past. His technique -- if you can even use that word in his case -- is astounding. It's as though his gifts were endowed, not developed: no perceptible breaks between registers, solid at the bottom, malleable in the middle and resplendent at the top. He is also blessed with a swimmer's torso and can rattle off ornamentations while crawling snake-like along the catwalk. Crowe apparently concentrates his professional activity on pre-romantic repertory, but it would be fascinating to hear what he does with Orsini, Bellini's Romeo or even Oscar and Oktavian.

Others in the strong cast on the night I visited the Bode included Darlene Ann Dobisch as Vitellia, Janin Czilwik as Servilia, Monica Garcia Albea as Annius, Hans Griepenstrog as Publio and Kai Ingo Rudolf in the title role. Dobisch and Czilwik exploited their opportunities with style and verve. Albea's bright, forward projection enlivened her delivery of "Tu fosti tradito." Griepenstrog and Rudolf offered welcome respites from the plethora of estrogenic vocalism.

Hagel traversed the heavily abridged score with energy and idiomatic tempi -- not too fast. Members of the Berliner Symphoniker -- one of the city's five major orchestras -- played as though they relish repeating the score up to six night's a week.

The production deploys dancers as wells as actors who speak the recitatives and supplementary lines in German, while the singing is performed in Italian. The catwalk thus can get crowded at times, but the arrangement works.

Titus continues at the Bode Museum through 19 December. If you can manage to get in -- it's pretty much sold out -- it will open a new window onto Mozart's masterpiece, especially if Crowe is performing.

┬ęSam H. Shirakawa

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