Like it or not, it is this time of year already. Hopes and memories start fading in the distance, the wandering lyrical soul just about to plunge into the Summer’s luminous festive promises…Well, more or less, anyway. The unusually long Berlin opera season is about to come to a halt in just a couple of weeks: the Staatsoper has yet one new staging of Bernstein’s irreverencious Candide up its sleeves before the first edition of the new INFEKTION! festival in July; its Charlottenburg neighbour, the Deutsche Oper, will give the Berlin premiere of Verdi’s Macbeth on June 12. The Robert Carsen production, imported from Köln, hardly qualifies as “new”, making the actual run of Saint-Saëns’ rarely staged Samson et Dalila the de facto ultimate offering of Intendantin / Regisseurin Kirsten Harms’ highly controversial reign. She is to step down in July after a bumpy seven-year tenure which saw the successive departures of two music directors, Christian Thielemann and Renato Palumbo, and the appointment of a third, incumbent Donald Runnicles.

Harms has come under heavy criticism for her choice of repertoire and directors alike, her inability to maintain strong musical leadership before Runnicle’s arrival only exemplified by her ill-advised pick of Palumbo as a short-lived successor to Thielemann, one of the most important conductors of his generation. Not surprisingly, this season has seen few highlights. After Roland Schwab’s erratic take on Don Giovanni, David Poutney’s Troyens and Graham Vick’s Tristan und Isolde, both dramaturgically valuable but incomplete, Patrick Kinmonth‘s grim and precise vision of Saint-Saëns’ religious fable is more than a fair success. The British director unobtrusively updates the action of this tale of national self-definition to the composer’s time, namely, the politically charged 1870s and the Franco-Prussian war. While there remains little of the slightly over-blown pageantry one readily associates with the opera, his approach is strangely compelling – not flawless, certainly, yet enticing as it makes no concession to political correctness in its depiction of social and racial tensions in Second Empire Paris, setting the stage for Europe’s meltdown-to-come. If there is one occurence where Kinmonth might be taken to fault, though, it is for perhaps choosing to ignore the context in which his concept unfolds: it is a tad precarious – not to say redundent, in this town –  to have tenths of Jews board departing trains at the final tableau. The audience’s irritation, on May 19, though understandable, tended to overshadow Malgorzata Walewska‘s beautifully sung Dalila and Alain Altinoglu‘s superb conducting.

Almost 46, the Polish contralto is no household name on the top-league opera circuit, yet she boasts a sizeable and richly hued voice coupled with strong, instinctive acting skills, compensating with refined musicality what her registers lack in homogeneity. A much satisfying if somewhat belated discovery for this listener, Walewska is a real contender for Olga Borodina and certainly a serious one for Anita Rachvelishvili or even Elīna Garanča, when and if the Latvian mezzo adds the role to her already vast repertoire. The rest of the cast acquitted themselves aptly, if without distinction. José Cura‘s rough-edged Samson, while touching in his third act soliloquy (see clip above), lacks nobility and seductiveness in variable doses; Laurent Naouri sings the Great Priest with style and treasurable mastery of French prosody.

Altinoglu, it seems, enters the category of underrated conducting wonders. The young French maestro coaxes the most exquisite sounds from the Deutsche Oper orchestra, avoiding the pitfall of prettiness throughout and making this score sound both structurally solid and just plain magnificent in its celebration of rosy decadence. Who ever said 19th-century French music was too mild? A terrific achievement.

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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.

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.