Saturday, June 11, 2011

Invoking the F-Word

Sam Shirakawa chose to attend a concert performance of Meistersinger instead of the soccer match of the day - did he make the right choice?

3 June 2011
Berlin Radio Symphonie Orchester
Philharmonie Berlin

While I was listening intently during a concert performance of Die Meistersinger last week at the Philharmonie in Berlin last week, the F-word occurred to me. Not that F-word. The F-Word.

As Edith Haller hit the word “Freund,” in “O Sachs, mein Freund,” the opera’s only lengthy interlude for Eva, she sounded to me fleetingly like, -- dare I say it? Kirsten Flagstad. There, I’ve said it: Flagstad. Several sopranos, Dvorakova and pre-Bayreuth Gwyneth Jones among them, have elicited the same reaction from me, but none with such sirenical allure as Haller. Hers is a huge, ineluctably feminine instrument, gleaming at the top and becoming flexibly mellow as she skates with no perceptible effort through her middle and lower registers. Haller’s Eva is enchanting; the part may as well have been written for her.

She was matched by Albert Dohmen’s superb Hans Sachs. Some may have found him a bit gruff from time to time, but the overall arc of his portrayal illuminated an aging but energetic craftsman, who is unwillingly obliged to resist Eva‘s advances.

Robert Dean Smith was at the top of his form as Walther von Stolzing, though he occasionally had some challenges above the staff. (I’ll come back to this in a moment.) He was at his best in the composition scene of the third act.

Peter Sonn, stepping in on short notice for Christoph Strehl as David, acquitted himself satisfactorily with his bright, well-focused and large lyric tenor. But there were stretches where he appeared to be sight-reading. He must also learn to eschew toe-tapping in time to his music.

Standouts among the rest of the alert and disciplined cast members included Georg Zeppenfeld as a mellifluous Pogner, Dietrich Henschel’s borderline psychotic Beckmesser, Thomas Pursio as a fluently florid Kothner, Michelle Breedt surprisingly concupiscent as Magdalena, and lo, that treasured ward of Aoide, Matti Salminen, in a much too brief cameo as the Nightwatchman.

Marek Janowski led the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (under Eberhard Friedrich) in a tightly paced -- occasionally too brisk -- performance. But in keeping the tempo decidedly upbeat, he contravened, for example, Wagner’s instruction for the chorale at the beginning of the first act, which explicitly states: “At the same tempo as the Prelude.” He’s not the first conductor to slow down at the chorale, but on this occasion, the effect was brake-slam abrupt. Otherwise, his reading became warmer and increasingly nuanced as the performance proceeded.

Anyone looking at the placement of numerous microphones on and above the platform could tell from the outset, that the performance was being recorded. That’s nothing new nor objectionable. But the seemingly itinerant placements of the singers -- now here, now there -- proved now and then unsettling for me. In the second act, Sachs and Eva played out their dialogue behind the first violins. The Nightwatchman delivered his first announcement from an upper loft overlooking the platform; his second from the stage. In the latter, the aural difference worked out nicely. In the former, not so successfully: despite the Philharmonie‘s much vaunted acoustic virtues, Dohmen and Haller sounded not merely distant from behind the first violins, but seemed qualitatively different than when they were standing near the podium. And I was sitting in the most desirable part of the house: Row 8, center block, parquet. No doubt, the sound engineers will work everything out for posterity, but if it occasionally sounded a bit odd to me, there‘s no telling how it struck people in other parts of the cavernous Philharmonie.

Which poses some questions: if performances are being slanted toward the microphone at the expense of the attending audience -- which sometimes pay obscene ticket prices -- should patrons receive a hefty discount? Or should they maybe just stay at home and wait for the broadcast or recording?

A case for waiting for the doctored broadcast or the enhanced CD/DVD: Walther has an exposed high-C in the second act. If he sang the note at all, Robert Dean Smith hit it so softly that I could not hear it. Was that intentional? You'll probably be able to hear the note loud and clear on the airwaves or on disc, and it will surely be Smith's very own separately taped and perfectly placed high-C (unlike Flagstad, whose high-Cs in the legendary EMI recording of Tristan und Isolde were lent by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf). But part of the thrill at any live opera is hearing those high notes con forza in the heat of performance, and we were, in my view, short changed.

Net-net, it was a superior performance. But as a member of the audience that chose schlepping to Philharmonie that day in favor of watching the Euro 2012 Qualifier, I felt cheated. All the more so, because Germany picked Austria's pockets 2-1.

©Sam H. Shirakawa

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