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


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