Monday, 29 May 2017

Staatsoper Berlin: Don Carlo

26 May 2017

Any opportunity to see Don Carlo(s) is difficult to resist, and happily it’s possible in Berlin to allay any sorrow at missing the Royal Opera House’s latest revival with the fact that both the Staatsoper and the Deutsche Oper have it on their Spielpläne this season. This was the penultimate performance at the former, and I'm already eyeing dates at the latter—although Anja Harteros’s planned appearances there in the Deutsche Oper’s Verdi-Tage next May are likely to also be on several people’s radar already.



At the Staatsoper we had the standard four-act Italian version. Philipp Himmelmann’s 2004 production is an austere, concentrated affair with one main idea, as far as I could tell, that it sticks to with admirable persistence: domesticating the grand world-historical forces that define the drama (or at least as Verdi and Schiller portray it).

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We opened then with a tableau of an awkward family meal—and this is certainly a family with a few reasons for awkwardness—that reminded me in passing of the opening tableau of Philipp Stölzl’s Forza del destino in Munich. This table remained central throughout the evening, the other elements of the drama often having to work around it.

Eating, drinking and even ironing played a constant role: Elisabeth feeds the Comtesse D’Aremberg a slice of consolatory cake during ‘Non pianger, mia compagna’; in a clever little touch we get a hint of Philip’s philistinism as he merrily over-salts a dish before tasting it; the whole evening climaxes with a distraught Elisabeth having to pour tea for the Grand Inquisitor.

Eboli is perhaps most interestingly developed in this new take on the piece, portrayed as a voracious vamp in the Veil Song, at the head of what looks like the militant wing of St Trinians. She often appears in striking silhouette at the back of the stage—Johannes Leiacker’s set, helped by Davy Cunningham’s lighting, makes powerful use of sliding panels—and features, to powerful effect, at the start of the introduction to ‘Ella giammai m’amo’, finishing off a clearly joyless sexual encounter with Philip.
 
Marina Prudenskaya performs the role magnificently, turning in an impressively agile Veil Song and an impassioned, powerful ‘O don fatale’ and throwing herself gamely into all the challenges of the production. René Pape’s Philip also gains in complexity as a character from the encounter at the start of his big scene. He sings in powerful, smooth phrases throughout, but achieves touching melancholic grandeur here, the scene leading into a compelling encounter with Mikhail Kazakov’s implacable, bitingly sung Grand Inquisitor.

Fabio Sartori’s Carlo is tirelessly sung, offering real ringing power if the occasional rough edge. Massimo Cavalletti (one of two late replacement Posas) has a pleasingly grainy and Italiniate sound. He was a little inconsistent at the top of the voice early on, but settled down for a potent account of the death scene. Lianna Haroutounian remains a very decent Elisabeth and sings with commitment and, especially in the impressively focused top of the voice, technical security. but for me doesn’t quite command the regal quality—vocally or theatrically—that the role demands.

Similarly, Massimo Zanetti’s conducting here failed for some of the evening to capture the dark grandeur of Verdi’s score, occasionally feeling a little efficient. There was some terrific playing from the Staatskapelle (to which one can add the pleasure of hearing this opera in the relatively modest Schillertheater), though, and Zenetti’s account seemed to gather accumulated weight as it went along.

Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim: Schubert Symphonies II

Franz Schubert
Symphony no. 5 in B flat major, D.485
Symphony no. 4 in C minor, "Tragic", D 417
Symphony no. 6 in C major, D.589

Pierre Boulez Saal, 25 May 2017

There are pros and cons when it comes to the programming of cycles. And sometimes doing so seems little more than an excuse to smuggle in yet more performances of works we already hear too often under the cloak of completism. But if Schubert’s final two symphonies hardly need a helping hand, the first six rare visitors to the concert hall in my experience. Daniel Barenboim’s Schubert cycle with his Staatskapelle Berlin at the Boulezsaal, which reached its midway point with this second concert, is making as eloquent a case as possible for them.

[Read the full review at Bachtrack]

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Deutsche Oper Berlin: L'elisir d'amore

23 May 2017

Repertory houses are full of surprises, or at least gems hidden away in their Spielpläne. In the autumn it was Anja Harteros’s Tosca for a couple of performances at the Deutsche Oper. And here it was the first of two performances of L’elisir d’amore with Roberto Alagna and Aleksandra Kurzak as the lovers (the second is on May 27).

L'elisir d'amore at the Deutsche Oper (photo © Monika Rittershaus)

It was a performance to restore some faith in humanity on a day when such a thing was sorely needed—an opera, too, that in its own joyous, honest and moving way, celebrates life and love, as well as humour, mischief and the qualities of a good (or even bad) Bordeaux.

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Irina Brook’s staging does a pretty good job of communicating all that, despite rather than because of its main Konzept. It sees Adina recast as the leader of a travelling troupe of actors (think a female Canio, without the temper) that is putting on a dramatic performance of the Tristan and Isolde story. Noëlle Ginefri’s set consists of a rickety stage, surrounded by the troupe’s trailers. It’s all kind of modernish dress (costumes by Sylvie Martin-Hyszka), but it’s difficult to tell—many of the chorus mill around in their medieval Cornish outfits, and this far into the Italian countryside clearly no one’s up with the main trends of the fashion world.

Some of the troupe warm up before the show begins, and there are a couple of times when they rehearse during the evening, before, at the close, Adina and Nemorino take to the stage in costume—presumably as the ill-fated Cornish couple—at the close. The Tristan references are of course a clever little joke that Felice Romani took from Eugène Scribe’s libretto for Le Philtre, one given even greater piquancy by Wagner’s subsequent treatment of the subject, but Brook seems to take it onto another meta-level that Donizetti’s little opera can’t quite sustain.

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It also raises questions. Nemorino seems to be some sort of cleaner, but does he travel around with the actors? Is he there to clean this rustic piazza? Do Belcore and his regiment follow them around as well? Wouldn’t a troupe of cynical and, by definition, well travelled actors prove a tough audience for Dulcamara’s shtick, or be unimpressed by the magic, here, of his assistant, ‘Nick’?

I didn’t let such questions detain me for long: they and the Konzept itself could happily be tidied away into the background and ignored, not least because of the sheer sense of fun brought to the piece. And at least the production did allow for plenty of impressive tomfoolery from Alagna, who threw himself into his characterisation with infectious glee. His singing, too, was filled with sunlight. The tone is a little looser these days, and he seemed to have a bit of a frog in his throat in ‘Una furtive lagrima’, but it’s still a voice of rare Italianate warmth and a pleasure to hear, especially in this lighter repertoire—although he did unleash a Manrico-esque top note or two, and occasionally wandered a little from the the conductor's tempo.

L'elisir d'amore at the Deutsche Oper (photo © Monika Rittershaus)

Kurzak’s Adina is hardly less enjoyable, her bright, creamy timbre employed in a performance of quick-witted verve and bounce, her coloratura despatched with applomb. Her new role in this production risked turning her into an unlikeable diva. But she struck that balance well, retaining more than enough of the character’s original charm. Her ‘Prendi, per me sei libero’, for me far and away the most beautiful moment in the score, was exquisitely done—and it was accompanied with the utmost sensitivity by the orchestra under Moritz Gnann, whose conducting was a model of bel canto fluidity and flexibility throughout.

Mikheil Kiria was a terrific Dulcamara, mixing clean articulation with a bright, lively baritone; and Thomas Lehman was suitably strutting and handsome-sounding as Belcore. Alexandra Hutton’s Giannetta was a constantly vivid presence, not least in gamely leading a couple of dance routines.

A few things to argue with in the production then—not least its basic premise—but this was a gentle, joyous and memorable L’elisir, in which everyone on stage seemed to be having at least as much fun as I was.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Oper Leipzig: Cinq-Mars

20 May 2017

You’d be forgiven for never having heard of Cinq-Mars – either Gounod’s 1877 opera or the historical character who gives the work its title. The 11th rarity to be revived by the Centre de la musique française at Palazzetto BruZane, and recorded with their support, it now follows Felicien David’s Herculaneum (staged at Wexford last year) in also receiving a first production since the 19th century. Oper Leipzig, whose Generalmusikdirektor and Intendant, Ulf Schirmer, conducted the recording, has done it proud...

[Read the full review at Bachtrack]


Sunday, 21 May 2017

Andsnes; Berliner Philharmoniker/Orozco-Estrada: Strauss, Rachmaninov, Shostakovich

Strauss R., Macbeth, Op.23
Rachmaninov, Piano Concerto no. 4 in G minor, Op.40
Shostakovich, Symphony no. 5 in D minor, Op.47

Philharmonie, 18 May 2017

This concert, as the programme told us, featured composers who all were hits, one way or another, with their public – and, I suppose, other subsequent publics. But Strauss tone poems and Rachmaninov piano concertos hardly come less popular than those we heard here.

Strauss’s Macbeth (composed 1886-88) seems at least to be witnessing a small upsurge in its fortunes, and this concert’s conductor, the Colombian Andrés Orozco-Estrada, has recently recorded it with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, of which he has been chief conductor since 2014...

[Read the full review at Bachtrack]

Monday, 15 May 2017

Deutsche Oper Berlin: Andrea Chénier

13 May 2017


I should admit I’ve always had a bit of a troubled relationship with Andrea Chénier, not least because, when I’ve seen it in the theatre, it’s never really caught fire.

I should also admit that that’s only been on a couple of occasions. The first time was in Vienna, in a Wiederaufnahme of Otto Schenk’s lavish production 15 years ago. It starred Violeta Urmana, Johan Botha and Lado Ataneli (with Elīna Garanča, I notice now, as Bersi). There was some impressive singing, obviously, but it left me a little cold.

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I felt similarly about David McVicar’s also-lavish production at Covent Garden (admittedly seen live only at the dress rehearsal, but later also watched on Blu-ray). In Vienna Urmana and Botha didn’t really set the world alight dramatically, I remember, or even in terms of fiery singing. In London, Jonas Kaufmann’s poet struck me as a touch too subtle and sophisticated, Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Maddalena heartfelt rather than incandescent.   

It was a joy, then, to see the Deutsche Oper’s staging, with a cast that threw themselves thrillingly into roles surely designed primarily as vehicles for exactly that. Chénier and Madelenna, at least, should sound indeed as though they know they’re for the chop, should sing their hearts out as though it might be for the last time. And that’s exactly what it felt like here.

Marcelo Alvarez’s voice still carries the traces of its more lyrical origins—it’s pleasingly soft-grained rather than excitingly steel-bladed—but he sang Chénier throughout with unstinting generosity and ardour, a slight patch of uncertainty at the start of the final duet notwithstanding. His acting was rudimentary, admittedly, hands and arms moving about in a series of stock tenorial gestures, but it hardly mattered. This was big-hearted singing served up in big, hearty dollops.

Maria José Siri’s Maddalena was nicely acted, and she conveyed particularly well the transition from the mischievous girl of the first act (especially so in this mischievous 1994 production from John Dew) to tragic figure. She channelled a good deal of grandezza and sang in a voice of unmistakably Italian colour: a slight edge to the warm sound, a care for words and a broadness of phrasing that was only slightly compromised by some shortness of breath. She rose brilliantly to a moving, noble ‘La mamma morta’ and matched Alvarez in the unrepentant fireworks of ‘Vicino a te’.

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George Gagnidze was a powerful Gérard, the voice impressively focused and forward, the characterisation broad-brush but persuasive. The were excellent performances in the smaller roles from a raft of Deutsche Oper singers: a strongly sung Bersi from Judit Kutasi, a fantastic cameo from Ronnita Miller as Madelon, a handsome sounding Mathieu from Samuel Dale Johnson.

Once we got past a couple of dodgy moments early on from the orchestra under Paolo Carignani (a late stand-in), the players and conductor hit their stride with big sweeping phrases and a grand, thrilling sound. Musically this was performance was straightforwardly but enormously pleasurable.

Dew’s production stands up well, too, striking the same sort of balance that I described in Götz Friedrich’s slightly later Traviata: a smart, interesting show but a sensible, eminently revivable one too. And Dew’s Chénier, though never undermining the piece, also gives the impression of not ever taking it too seriously.

Act One, therefore, is a riot of grotesquely exaggerated froufrou (José Manuel Vázquez clearly had a lot of fun designing the costumes), its action taking place on a platform beneath which the underclass grumble away threateningly. The act’s conclusion, which sees one side of the platform rise up and these preposterous aristos slide helplessly off it, is a brilliant touch. The same set remains, in various configurations, and there’s another neat touch at the very end, where panels come across and down gradually to enclose Chénier and Maddalena in the shape of the blade that’s shortly to do its worst. A witty end to a rousingly enjoyable evening. 

Gautier Capuçon; Berliner Phllharmoniker/Bychkov: Shostakovich, Strauss

Shostakovich, Cello Concerto no. 1 in E flat major, Op. 107
Strauss, Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40

Philharmonie, 12 May 2017

For this programme with the Berliner Philharmoniker, Semyon Bychkov chose two works in E flat major, the traditional key of heroism. But it’s hardly possible to imagine two more different treatments of that favourite musical mode.

Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto is often described as presenting an anti-hero, a fruitless struggle against insuperable forces in which we nonetheless see glimpses of defiant humanity. The grandiloquent surface of Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben, by contrast, suggests an image of conceited triumphalism...

[Read the full review at Bachtrack]