Monday, October 31, 2011

Give the Kid a Mike!

Sam Shirakawa has been in New York City for the past couple of weeks and attended the opening night of the Met's new production of Siegfried. Here's his review:

Wagner: Siegfried (New Production)
Metropolitan Opera
27 October 2011

Have you ever attended a performance of Siegfried wishing afterwards that Brünnhilde never woke up?

Everything was going smoothly at the premiere of Robert Lepage’s new production of Siegfried at the Metropolitan Opera until well into the third act. That’s when the hero broke the Wanderer's spear and things started getting dodgy. Up until that point, Jay Hunter Morris as Siegfried was proving himself an able though somewhat smallish-voiced replacement for the ailing Gary Lehman, Bryn Terfel was done successfully navigating the Wanderer’s journey, and Siegfried’s miserable guardian Mime, sung  sympathetically by Gerhard Siegel, was long since done in.

But the crucial vignette in which Siegfried smashes the Wanderer's spear and strips him of his power was enacted upstage instead of toward the audience, thereby diminishing its impact as the most significant moment in The Ring of the Nibelung. A few moments later, Morris caused gasps as he slipped and nearly fell while traversing a fire-enveloped trough created by the dilatory planks that form Carl Fillion’s unit set.

The uh-oh moment of the performance came up when Brünnhilde arose from her slumber and greeted the sun. By the way, how does the Valkyrie manage to change into that cream-colored number if she’s been asleep all these years?

Anyway, Deborah Voigt sounded ill at ease from the start, and she gave some listeners no little discomfort whenever she was obliged to ascend above the staff, which was often. For those who are acquainted with the music in the final scene, the pair of high Cs that top out the longish section beginning with “Ewig war ich” are anticipated with either eagerness or dread, depending on the soprano’s vocal estate. On Thursday night, the wait was dreadful.

Disappointment at Voigt’s performance raises some questions: Was it simply a bad night? Undoubtedly. Is the role unsuited to her? Likely. Is her voice on the skids? Unlikely. To look at her account of the awakened Valkyrie in the most optimistic light, her voice may now have arrived at a key point in transforming itself from, say, soprano to mezzo-soprano.

Voigt, after all, is no longer a youngster. She made her Met debut in 1991 as Amelia. That was a spectacular, I Was There Event. Her voice was rich and on the dark side from the get-go, and it remains an essentially attractive instrument. While her lower and middle ranges have deepened with maturity, her upper register occasionally has sounded strained under pressure in recent years. The time may be at hand for Voigt to start looking seriously at Charlotte, Didon, the Composer and ... and ... and. If she hasn’t already.

I’m not sure whether Fabio Luisi’s tempi were on the slow side but they occasionally sounded slow. But they didn’t help Voigt get through her relatively brief stint. Which is not to say, that faster tempi would have ameliorated the serious matters confronting Voigt right now. That said, the Met Orchestra responded with some gorgeous playing. Luisi’s forte in Strauss and late Romantic music is his capacity to draw transparency from his players without sacrificing energy. This mindset in the Ring is an interesting alternative to Levine’s gracious but in-your-face directness.

Turning back the clock for a moment, the buzz surrounding the premiere was whether Jay Hunter Morris could acquit himself in the title role. As it turned out, he sang with unflagging enthusiasm, lyricism and intelligence, and never pushed beyond his means. His problem with this role is not of his own making. Siegfried demands a voice capable of trumpeting out in the forging scene and during the final pages of The Duet. More than once, I was thinking, give the kid a mike! His estimable vocal arsenal would fire off more tracers in any house smaller than the Met.

Others in the classy ensemble included Eric Owen’s nasty Alberich, Hans-Peter König as a drowsy Fafner, Mojca Erdmann as an instructive Woodbird, and Patricia Bardon at her best when telling Wotan he’s on his own.

Robert Lepage’s pretty, graphics-intensive production is less noisy than his Rheingold and Walküre, but it fails to render a sense of Siegfried ascending to a higher plane in the third act. He makes the hero’s journey to Brünnhilde’s lair more a hike through a fiery ravine than a climb to perilous heights.

Oh, yeah, the Dragon. Scary? Call it the Lizard of Oz.

©Sam H. Shirakawa

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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Faire la noce Rossini

The day after Sam Shirakawa saw a revival of the Bartered Bride at the Komische Oper Berlin, he picked up a performance of Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia:

Rossini: Il Barbiere di Siviglia
Staatsoper Berlin
10 October 2011

Il Barbiere di Siviglia | Vivica Genaux as Rosina
Roman Trekel as Figaro (c) Monika Rittershaus

Daniel Barenboim appearing at (relatively) popular prices! Yup, the peripatetic maestro does indeed make a certain number of appearances at “family performances” when he is in Berlin, where, as everybody should know by now, he is Music Director and Conductor for Life at the State Opera (Staatsoper), one of the capital’s three principal opera houses.

What everybody may NOT know by now, is that Barenboim, 68, has just been appointed Music Director at La Scala Milan, where he has been serving as Principal Conductor since 2006, following Ricardo Muti’s stormy departure. The new gig will keep him busy at La Scala for four months every season until the end of 2016. How many of his numerous recital and other engagements he can also fulfill -- leader of the Diwan Youth Orchestra for example -- remains to be heard.

What I found notable about his appearance on the podium at a performance of Il Barbiere di Siviglia on 10 October was how well-rehearsed and interesting his reading was. A couple of seasons back, he gave a much anticipated but disappointing recital from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. The most frequent line I heard during intermission was, “He needs to travel less and practice more.”

At the performance of Barbiere on 10 October, though, Barenboim looked relaxed and gave the appearance, at least, of being thoroughly prepared -- often calling out inner voices in the instrumentation and vocal writing that frequently go unheard. I’ve seldom seen him in such a playful mood, especially with the orchestra of the Staatskapelle, which I rarely -- even at pricey Easter Festival conditions -- have heard play better. In more than a few instances, he seemed to be enjoying a tacit private joke with his players. They clearly love him.

But Barenboim’s bonhomie in the pit did not always reach the stage, where the vocalism in general was excellent but only here and there inspired. Perhaps his measured tempi had something to do with it: the revelations permitted by allegro moderato can sometimes bump the brio out of allegro con brio. The singers who got with the program best were Rachel Frenkel and Alexander Vinogradov. Frenkel is a lyric mezzo who portrayed Rosina as sly but sympathetic. She is attractive and a comely stage presence, while rattling out fioritura with no perceptible fear. Vinogradov has sung Don Basilio often enough to get giggles from the audience at the right places, irrespective of tempo.

Il barbiere di Siviglia | Alexander Vinogradov as Basilio (c) Monika Rittershaus

Christopher Maltman and Dmitry Korchak as Figaro and Almaviva respectively, sang with accurate pitch and rhythm but they seemed at a loss to find the bubbly in their characters.

All the more surprising because the famous Brecht-meets-commedia dell’arte production dating from 1968 by the late Ruth Berghaus cuts the singers plenty of slack for all kinds of inventive mischief. The staging is a holdover from the Staatsoper’s DDR period and is one of the crowning gems in its repertoire. Even after all these years, it still is sparkling, nuanced and highly instructive. It should never be replaced.

Rococo Theater at Sans Souci (Potsdam)

Between Smetana and Rossini, I couldn’t resist visiting the Neues Palais at Sans Souci on 9 September for a recital of Bach and Telemann in its jewel box Rococo theater, featuring mandolinist Avi Avital and produced by Potsdam’s Kammerakademie. The mini-opera house is tucked away in the upper regions of the palace and features amphitheater seating on the parquet level. What a delight to hear this music in an environment that would not have felt strange to composers performed at this concert!

©Sam H. Shirakawa

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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Let's Make a Deal

Sam was in Berlin to see a revival of The Bartered Bride at the Komische Oper:

Smetana: The Bartered Bride
Komische Oper Berlin
9 October 2011

Komische Oper Berlin - Photo: Monika Rittershaus

It’s a commonplace in opera for several characters to be singing at the same time. Occasionally, you’ll even hear a last-minute substitute singing in a language other than the one in which his/her colleagues are singing.

But a replacement singing in the same language but following a different translation from the one his colleagues are using?

As you probably know, everything at Berlin’s Komische Oper is sung in German. Smetana’s The Bartered Bride (1866), whose original text is in Czech, is no exception. But the current production is using a translation by the company’s fabled founder Walter Felsenstein (1901-1975). It’s not clear to me why he made the effort, when there is already a standard German translation available, but he apparently was fluent enough in Czech to do it, so bully for him and the KO.

A little problem comes up, though, if illness strikes and you have no stand-bys who know Felsenstein’s translation. At a recent performance, Timothy Richards, who was to have sung Jenik, cancelled. His replacement Harrie van der Plas was recruited from Holland with only a few hours’ notice, but he knew only the standard translation.

The situation had all the makings of a Tour de Babel, but van der Plas managed to wing it convincingly. His colleagues also went into go-with-the-flow mode and avoided potential catastrophe by following the beat with unflagging concentration, while subtly steering van der Plas around the boards in Andreas Homoki’s relatively straightforward staging from 2002.

As far as I can tell, van der Plas has been singing professionally for about 15 years, making the rounds of European stages while ramping up vocal steam in such parts as Pollione, Anckerström and Turridu. Judging from his vocal ease and palpable confidence on stage, he may well be ready for prime-time. Harrie van der Plas is a singer worth attention.

Also worth attention at this performance: Christiane Kohl, who evinced a powerfully sung Marenka, Thomas Ebenstein as an engagingly comic Vesek and Jens Larsen as the crafty marriage broker Kecal. The hero of the performance, though, was conductor Alexander Vedernikov, who kept a tight rein on the proceedings onstage and led the orchestra through a bouncy reading right from the start of the pitfall-laden overture. (Gustav Mahler, who led the first performances at the Met in 1909, reportedly performed the overture at the start of Act II, so that latecomers could be treated to its marvels.) Even with a souffleur in the prompter’s box, Vedernikov paid close attention to cuing the singers himself and keeping the chorus under (Andre Kellinghaus’ direction) in check. Followers of the Bolshoi Opera know that Vedernikov was Music Director there from 2002 through 2009. He is often a guest at Europe’s major opera houses, and I look forward to hearing him again.

Did I mention the dancing? The folk dances in The Bartered Bride are one of the factors that has led to the work being called “the Czech national opera.” Since the premiere of this production nearly ten years ago, the Ballet of the Komische Oper has been dissolved. That’s why I didn’t mention the dancing.

©Sam H. Shirakawa

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Thursday, October 06, 2011

A Long Time Between Drinks

Sam Shirakawa is excited about a new production of Der Fliegende Holländer in Wuppertal - so excited he has (so far) attended two performances with alternate casts. Here's his take:

Wagner: Der Fliegende Holländer (New Production)
22 and 25 September 2011

Kay StiefermannPhoto: Uwe Stratmann

Let’s go straight to the central question: A new Nilsson?

The thought certainly occurred to me while I was listening to a certain Allison Oakes as Senta recently in Wuppertal’s new atmospheric, gimmick-free production of Der Fliegende Holländer under the fleet hand of stage director Jakob Peters-Messer. I was so pleasantly surprised at what I heard -- not only from Oakes but from others in the cast -- that I went back to hear the next performance a few days later.

The proof of Senta’s pudding lies in the final five minutes of the opera; in those arching measures, you either have it or you’ve had it. The distinguishing mark of the greatest Sentas in these excruciating moments is the capacity to keep the voice forward, stable and loud as it follows the notes above the staff. Oakes has it in spades, and she gave the impression at both performances that she has more where those high B-naturals were coming from. While the voices of most Sentas to be heard in your recording collection and on the web tend to spread at the top in varying degrees, Oakes’ vibrato tightens and quickens, morphing into a laser stream of thrilling sound. That said, though, her voice also teeters on the brink of hardening at this altitude. A soprano as young and gifted as Oakes needs to be wary of the curses that threaten her blessings.

Speaking of blessings, Wuppertal is endowed with having two mesmerizing company members in the title role. Whenever I’ve heard Kay Stiefermann, I’ve wondered why he isn’t better known. At this stage of his career, coming into his prime, he certainly has as many tricks in his bag as James Morris and Thomas Hampson had in theirs back in the late 1980s. Stiefermann’s Dutchman is as alarming in his alienation as he is sympathetic in his longing for redemption. Rarely betraying gear shifts between registers, he portrays Wagner’s Ahasuerus-figure with gaunt and hungry mien. Powerful, compelling stuff.

Allison Oakes, Kay StiefermannPhoto: Uwe Stratmann

Kai Günther, the other yeoman Dutchman on Wuppertal’s roster, struck me just as needy in his outcast state as he is desparate in his yearning for wholeness. His instrument is warm and evenly distributed, rising fully to the declamatory demands of the role, while easing imperceptibly into the Dutchman’s most vulnerable disclosures.

Boris Leisenheimer and Christian Sturm provided vocally contrasting portrayals of the Steersman. Leisenheimer’s voice is the beefier of the two, but he had a tendency to sharpen under pressure. Nerves maybe. Sturm seemed surprisingly comfortable with the requisites of the part. His stage poise and robust vocal production augur well for Tamino, Orpheus, and maybe, eventually, even Essex.

Johan Weigel was the romantically challenged Erik at both performances. He has an attractive voice that may be better suited to Mozart than to Wagner, but he needs in any case to keep it from falling back into the head in the upper register.

Michael Tews proved himself a jovial money-grubbing Daland. Joslyn Rechter and Miriam Ritter both showed a delightfully fussy Mary.

Towering even above Stiefermann, Günther and Oakes is Hilary Griffiths at the podium, who makes the Symphonieorchester Wuppertal play like angels. Griffiths is the first conductor I’ve heard since Klemperer, Stokowski and Goodall, who can conjure that elusive “Wagner sound” from an orchestra that isn’t playing in the pit at Bayreuth.

Chor und Extrachor der Wuppertaler Bühnen mitte: Christian Sturm
Photo: Uwe Stratmann

The augmented chorus under Jens Bingert’s direction was consistantly inspired -- biting off ending consonants in complete unison, while always keeping the bloom on impure vowels in the forte passages refreshed. The ladies spinging as they sewed in the second act sounded twice their number. The sailors sang with the kind of brio that you usually associate with amateur (in the most complimentary sense of the word) local Männerchöre.

In a previous entry on this site, I reported how hearing Rosalind Elias in Vanessa got me hooked on opera. What I wish I had known then, that I sadly know now, is that really great opera performances happen maybe once in every 150. All in all, lightning has struck twice so far on Wuppertal’s production of Holländer.

I’ll go hear it again soon. It’s always a long time between drinks.

©Sam H. Shirakawa