Springtime Debut

March 23, 2011

Petra-Maria Schnitzer sings her first Isolde in Graham Vick’s new staging at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. I write about it for the Financial Times.

March Blues Playlist

March 16, 2011

The clouds hovering above Berlin seem immovable. Sigh.

- Poesie, Orchestral Songs of Richard Strauss; Diana Damrau, Christian Thielemann conducting the Münchner Philharmoniker (Virgin)

- Verdi, La Traviata; Anja Harteros, Piotr Beczala, Paolo Gavanelli, et al., Zubin Mehta conducting the Bayerisches Staatsorchester and the Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper – live recording, Nationaltheater, March 2006 (Farao Classics)

- Von ewiger Liebe, lieder of Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, R. Strauss and Brahms; Anja Harteros accompanied by Wolfgang Rieger (Berlin Classics)

- Ne me refuse pas, French Opera Arias; Marie-Nicole Lemieux with guest François Lis, Fabien Gabel conducting the Orchestre National de France (Naïve)

- Vivaldi, Ercole sul Termodonte; Rolando Villazón, Romina Basso, Patrizia Ciofi, Diana Damrau, Joyce DiDonato, Vivica Genaux, Philippe Jaroussky, Topi Lehtipuu, Fabio Biondi conducting his ensemble Europa Galante (Virgin)

- Mélodies, songs of Debussy, Duparc, Saint-Saëns, Chabrier, Ravel, Hahn; Stéphane Degout accompanied by Hélène Lucas (Naïve)

Print Hiatus

March 12, 2011

Back in the saddle. I have been kept busy in nearby dwellings, attending the European Opera Forum in London, the last performances of both Anna Nicole at Covent Garden and Lucrezia Borgia at ENO, plus Claus Guth’s excellent new Parsifal at the Liceu in Barcelona. More on that promptly.

Last week, Wajdi Mouawad opened F.I.N.D. 2011, the yearly festival of new authors presented by the Schaubühne, with the world premiere of his play Temps. I was already in Albion and could not attend, but wrote a short preview for Montréal’s daily La Presse. My piece on Anna Nicole (also in French) was published yesterday morning.

The Donizetti Tenor

March 2, 2011

A member of the ensemble at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden between 2003 and 2006, the Slovakian tenor Pavol Breslik returned to his former artistic base last month for a revival of Percy Adlon’s 2002 production of L’elisir d’amore. A noted Mozart interpreter, he has been expanding his repertoire steadily over the last couple of seasons, most notably at the Bayerische Staatsoper where he recently debuted both Lensky in Eugene Onegin (no surprise) and Gennaro in Lucrezia Borgia (a less conventional choice) alongside his compatriot Edita Gruberova. His decision to add the Painter in Berg’s Lulu - a resounding success this past Summer in Salzburg – and Alfredo to his roles, while somewhat unexpected, was met with critical and public acclaim. With yet another take at Donizetti’s lovesick Nemorino, he was back to the basic lighter bel canto fare, i.e. vocal writing of a deceivingly simple nature, which nonetheless commands absolute breath control and support, elegance, expressive phrasing and pinpoint legato in mellifluous cantilenas, quick-silver agility and nimbleness in chatty passages. Exuding wit and charm, he also demonstrated how these qualities, no doubt the result of his Mozartean assiduities, make his appealing, smokey-colored tenor a perfect match for this tenderest of antiheroes. While some observers might argue in favor of more genuinely italianate voices in this and similar repertoire, Breslik’s stylish performance put into perspective the similarities and subsequent development between late 18th-century vocalism and early-to-middle period Verdi, his approach to Donizetti serving as the most obvious link between the two.

He is set to sing his first Macduff in Macbeth at the Deutsche Oper Berlin this coming June. For Germanophiles, here is a short portrait of the artist courtesy of the Bayerische Staatsoper:

Water Nymph Meets Haneke

February 28, 2011

Stranger at home: Rusalka at the Komische Oper Berlin (Act 3)

Antonín Dvořák‘s operatic prolificity, while objectively unquestionable, has always been somewhat overshadowed by his success as an orchestral and chamber music composer. To this day, most of his catalogue remains neglected, with the remarkable exception of Rusalka, the mythological tale of a water sprite who trades her voice for a human body in order to conquer the heart of her beloved prince, only to find rejection and eternal doom on the way. Though the plot shares elements with Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, it is based on much obscurer eponymous legends by Czech writers Božena Němcová and Karel Jaromír Erben, making the opera a thoroughly symptomatic product of fin de siècle Mitteleuropa. As such, it can be seen as an allegory of the crash of contemporary European identity and values. Barbe et Doucet, in their new staging for the Volksoper Wien, avoided region-specific cultural criticism and focused on modern-day self-annihilation through consumerism, while Martin Kušej‘s corrosive and consequently controversial production for Munich took a caustic shot at Austria’s (and Bavaria’s) upper classes (unfortunately, this observer has not yet had the privilege to see Stefan Herheim’s take on this seminal work). Barrie Kosky follows a similar path in his new reading for the Komische Oper Berlin, which premiered on February 20. The capacity audience (which included Bayreuth’s co-head Eva Wagner-Pasquier, ENO’s John Berry, Donald Runnicles, Lothar Zagrosek and Herheim) responded enthusiastically to Kosky’s depressingly grim and violent vision, aesthetically reminiscent of Michael Haneke’s opus magnum, Das weisse Band. The distance (the production is set in Dvořák’s time) kept between the audience and what is represented to them is one fundamental difference with Kušej’s interpretation. On this occasion, Patrick Lange conducted aptly though lacked the sheer incandescence of Munich’s Tomáš Hanuš. Agnes Zwierko (Ježibaba) and Dimitry Ivashchenko (Vodník) were standouts among a fine cast. The production runs through July 14.

Sokolov Superstar

February 24, 2011

Hardly a household name in the Western hemisphere, the Russian Grigory Sokolov enjoys in this town what amounts to superstar status: significant media attention, a large and devoted fanbase, and the assurance that this faithful following will show up in droves at the box office, as they did this past week at the Philharmonie for one of the master pianist’s exceedingly seldom outings. Sokolov favors recitals over any other form of musical activity, avoiding orchestras with the same indifference as he does microphones, a niche he shares with few of his colleagues, past and present. Martha Argerich, for one, is famous for her now decades-long recital shyness, while Glenn Gould‘s exclusive affair with the recording studio largely contributed to the making of his own legend. The essence of Sokolov’s magic, on the contrary, has to be experienced live, the fugitive and unreplicable nature of which enhances the sense of privilege avid concertgoers thrive on. In this particular case, the audience’s excitement and gratitude also points to Berlin’s complex recent and not-so-recent history: in the days when tensions between the American giant and the Soviet empire impacted the global cultural landscape in ways hard to conceive today, the city was a haven for Russian artists, the only metropolis they could access with relative ease given its unique position both “behind” and “beyond” the Iron Curtain.

There was some of that, without a doubt, in the rousing welcome he received yesterday night, which stood as much as recognition of his unwavering loyalty to the Berlin public as it did as a sign of renewed (high) expectations. Certainly these were met, if not exceeded. The Philharmonie is hardly the most intimate setting one can imagine for a Klavierabend of Bach and Schumann, a touch of dryness unfortunately creeping in its less congenial than customary acoustics, obviously not developed with an empty stage in mind. Yet the dimmed lights and the pianist’s almost furtive stage demeanour commanded inner concentration, paving the way for the ensuing collective awe, of which there was no shortage. Sokolov’s is an imposing, muscular, typically Russian technique, more in the vein of Gilels than Horowitz, for which Bach and Schumann might have sounded like oddly-paired dance partners on a short concert program. His penetrating reading of the latter’s intricately original contrapunctual writing (here as in the Humoreske Op. 20 and the four Klavierstücke, Op. 32) drew a clear line between the two. Though not devoid of gravity, his interpretation lacked only a dose of the kind of ineffable romantic ecstasy this writer expects to hear in such music, prerequisites for which would be a slightly lighter, more indulgingly coloristic approach and a freer handling of purely formal precepts, both seemingly out-of-place in this context. From an interpretive standpoint, whether the performer should try to tame Schumann’s eccentricities, or else let them become the food of visionary inspiration – the old quarrel of the composer’s own bi-polar alter-ego, Florestan and Eusebius – is a question for the ages. Sokolov’s, on this occasion, sided with the poised and measured Eusebius. Consequently, his rendition of the Italian Concerto, BWV 971 and the Overture in the French Style, BWV 831, at once stylistically accurate and remarkably self-effaced, proved revelatory in at least one aspect: played with such integrity and insight, the question of whether Bach’s keyboard music should be performed on the modern piano or confined to the harpsichord becomes irrelevant. Once he had gotten through the official program, the pianist launched into a series of encores, mostly Russian miniatures, all greeted with frenetic cheering and applause. It almost felt like Carnegie Hall after a recital of Evgueny Kissin.

A recension of recent operatic happenings in Berlin being long overdue, it is only fair to start with one of this season’s top highlights, showcasing the German-Greek soprano Anja Harteros at her considerable best. In a microcosmos plagued with ever more complex casting puzzles, Harteros, who turns 39 this year, stands among the vocal wonders of our age. Hers is a singular career, though, one that largely unfolds under the radar, at a steady yet measured pace reminiscent of the bygone-era when extremely promising artists had a great deal less marketing and PR-related pressure bestowed upon them. The winner of  the 1999 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition, she has managed to remain remarkably independant even following this major career breakthrough, limiting her appearances both to a number of top-league theaters and to a carefully-selected variety of roles to which her rich lirico spinto is admirably suited. There certainly is a case to be made for this prudent, slightly old-fashioned conception of a singer’s artistic and professional development. On the one hand, essaying roles at venues of lesser exposure before taking them to more prestigious stages typically allows for greater interpretive freedom and maturation potential; on the other, geographical proximity and a tendency to cap the number of concert engagements during a busy opera season make for a healthier, more-balanced lifestyle often craved by sought-after performers who would otherwise travel constantly – and often become prone to cancellation. The “downside” of such wise planning, if one might call it as such, is that it usually doesn’t come with the sort of mediatic attention a high-octane, label-supported career commands. Local followings and reputation, built and earned over time, prevail over faster worlwide fame.

Having garnered resounding successes in the German capital with her portrayals of Violetta, Mimi, Amelia Grimaldi and Desdemona during recent seasons, it is no wonder that her single operatic appearance here in nearly one year, a revival of Götz Friedrich’s somber yet dignified take on La traviata at the Deutsche Oper, quickly became the hottest ticket in town (I was blessed to be able to sneak in at the last minute – there really was not one ticket to be found). And with reason. While readers are at liberty to discuss to which diva-category Edita Gruberova belongs (if any!), Harteros, as she enters her first maturity phase, represents the perfect balance of “Kunst” and “Stimm” features, blended into one absolutely first-rate performer. Even if her Violetta has received comparatively little attention outside of the German-speaking world, it certainly is one of the most complete portrayals around, vocally and dramatically. The intrinsic qualities of her much-lauded Elsa, Contessa, or Elettra, each heard recently in Munich, New York or Salzburg, were again on display here, if only matched by her penetrating insight into the character’s multilayered psychology. A statuesque figure, she has an uncanny way of translating, in purely musical terms, each and every of her dramatic intentions: playful and defiant – yet classy – in Act 1, tragically resigned in Act 2, soul-wrenching in Act 3. It stands as testimony of her amazing resources that none of Verdi’s diversely taxing writing poses any form of threat to her. In an evening of highlights, the intelligence and nobility with which she imbued the second stanza of Dite alla giovine, as well as the extraordinary emotional refinement of her Addio del passato, remain with this listener as two examples of supreme artistry. A towering achievement, on the occasion of which she was aptly supported by the Germont of Kammersänger Marcus Brück (filling in on short-notice for an indisposed Simon Keenlyside) and the slightly-strained and consequently less compelling Alfredo of debutant Pavel Černoch.

Though she shies away from the liability of an exclusive recording contract, Harteros’ discography is by no means meager, and novelties appear with some regularity. Besides the Lohengrin mentioned above, opera lovers should not miss her Elettra in Idomeneo, filmed in Salzburg in 2006 and also released by Decca (a cherished personal memory). Lower-key labels Berlin Classics and Farao Classics have respectively released her latest recital disc, devoted to Strauss, Schumann, Wolf, Brahms and Haydn (a program which she performed splendidly in Salzburg last August), and two “lives” from the Bayerische Staatsoper, an Alcina and a Traviata from 2004-2005. The reigning Contessa Almaviva and Donna Anna of her generation, both of which she now performs sporadically, she debuts the Trovatore Leonora this week in Köln, a role she is slated to bring to the Metropolitan in 2012-2013. Repertoire-wise, this surely is a direction to which the darkening of her complexly-colored timbre, the length and breadth of her voice, as well as her ever-clever artistic appetite have been pointing for a little while. Already a fêted Arabella and soon-to-be Marschallin, her first Ariadne shouldn’t be very far ahead – as for Verdi, we might be in for a surprising development.

We’ll have to wait another couple of weeks before the three main Berlin opera companies announce their plans for next season. Hopefully her local calendar will include more than a handful of sold-out dates.

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