Monday, February 15, 2010

Bon-Bons from Bonne Bonn

WAGNER : TANNHÄUSER
Theater Bonn
7 February 2010


I’ve made three trips to Bonn from Cologne in the past month (less than 30 minutes by train), twice to hear the last performances this season of Tannhäuser. As I suspected, the best thing about Klaus Weise’s new production is how new it looks.

Following the current trend, the musical format mixes the Dresden (1845) and Paris (1860) versions. For those members of the Great Unwashed who don’t know the key differences between the two versions: the Paris Edition has a ballet; the Dresden version has more singing, primarily in the second act. The mixed version going around these days purveys the ballet and more singing. For purists, this might not make sense: The later version is significantly more sophisticated. As the fat lady tauntingly told her husband though: All in all, there’s just more to love.

What’s truly to love in Bonn’s new production is Scott MacAllister. I never thought I would ever hear a Heinrich (that’s T’s first name) so well sung. All the more surprising, because I heard him sing a number of roles (mostly Mozart) 20 years ago in Mannheim, and I could not have imagined that I would ever hear him attempt, let alone achieve excellence in a Wagner opera. The voice in its current estate has no perceptible register breaks. It’s bright and open at the top, solid in the middle and below. The sound is clean, large and remains sweet under pressure: Think Bjørling meets early Max Lorenz. MacAllister needs at least one strophe of his Hymn to Venus to warm up, but once he hits his stride, he’s full-throttle right up to the final curtain. Of the 15-odd tenors I’ve heard as Tannhäuser over more than 30 performances, including Hans Hopf, James McCracken and Peter Seifert (and oh, yes, Pekka Nuotio, too), none come close to challenging him. Unfortunately though, the size of his midriff has increased in direct proportion to the outsize amplitude of his voice.

Elisabeth on 7 February was Ingeborg Greiner, who was satisfactory, following a nervous start. Far superior was Anna-Katharina Behnke, who sang the role in Bonn last month. She has grown musically by leaps since I first heard her as Aida in Halle about 12 years ago, but she remains an underestimated quantity.

Anna Magdalena Hofmann was an attractive Venus and Lee Poulis a dignified Wolfram. Both received a big round of applause at the curtain calls. The other principals carried out their duties efficiently: Ramaz Chikviladze (Hermann), Mirko Roschkovski (Walther), Mark Morouse (Biterolf), Mark Rosenthal (Heinrich der Schreiber), Marton Tzonev (Reinmar). No standouts though.

Stefan Blunier drew some excellent playing from the house orchestra.


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Monday, February 16, 2009

Adriana Lecouvreur

And another squib from Sam Shirakawa, who attended Friday evening's performance of Adriana Lecouvreur:
ADRIANA LECOUVREUR

METROPOLITAN OPERA
13 FEBRUARY 2009

SHRINKING VIOLET


That's right. If you're a star soprano, you can't be a shrinking violet, especially if you're headlining a cruddy opera like Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur. You need to believe there is more to this trash heap of notes than the two lovingly composed arias Cilea set for its legendary creator Angelica Pandolfini [whose elusive recordings constitute the Avalon if not the Holy Grail among record collectors. Read the riveting interview with Sir Paul Getty by Richard Bebb]. More than believing, though, you need conviction. Caballe had it. Scotto too. So did Tebaldi, although I never heard her sing the role live.

Maria Guleghina -- the Met's current Adriana -- has a plethora of belief and conviction, but from the get-go, she's severely handicapped in portraying the immortal diva of La Comedie Français: She must make her entrance speaking a few lines before launching into song. Whadishesay? Mind you, a lot of suspension of disbelief is required at this point -- indeed throughout the whole plot. The setting is backstage at La Comedie Française, where French is the lingua franca, but the text of Cilea's opus, of course, is in Italian. Guleghina's sung Italian diction more than passes muster. But her spoken Italian?

So unintentionally stunning is Guleghina's elocution, that it's hard to comment on how she delivered her first aria -- you know, the one in which the eponymous diva declares that she is but the humble handmaiden of genius. Having only partially recovered by the time her fourth act aria came up, I can only say that the Ukrainian-born Met favorite left me with the impression of an unusual Adriana.

An unusual performance of another sort was rendered by Olga Boradina as the Princess. She was oddly detached in a role that screams for some "trucking."

I must confess now that I attended this performance partly out of morbid curiosity: to hear Placido Domingo attempt Maurizio -- his debut role at the Met in 1968. Amazingly, he can still do it. Domingo has become a walking object lesson in style, musicality and vocal technique and proves that age does not necessarily wither. The squillo -- that wounded animal sound -- still squeezes out of the upper register, the phrasing is indeed more natural than in his salad days, and he's gained the aura of a compelling stage-presence. That was not always at his command.

Roberto Frontali made the most of what he could out of Adriana's love-lorn suitor Michonnet.

Marco Armillato is conducting a lot at the Met these days. Is he taking charge of its Italian wing? His reading of Cilea's loose score -- maybe it's just lousy -- is tightly disciplined, if not always dramatically taut.

Something is missing from Mark Lamos' production. The sets could also use a few more walls. Maybe that's what's missing -- not enough scenery to chew.

The Met has assembled just about the best star cast that money can buy in these moribund days of the economy and romantic lyric theater. But where to buy that touch of wonder that sparks enchantment?

Speaking of money, the Met is upping its ticket price in the Family Circle from $15 to $20 next season. That's a 33 percent increase. Not enchanting. Other price ranges apparently remain unchanged [editor's Note: prices for the partial-view balcony box seats are also going up]. Why is the Met financially penalizing most the people who can afford opera least? This decision may well be a cynical move to capitalize on subscribers who are moving down in the world from the Dress Circle and the Balcony. A five dollar increase in less superior seats is still cheaper than staying where they are. This is outrageous, but nobody seems to care. Very well. Both the callous Met management and the silent stalwarts who keep opera going long after the fat cats have slunk away will each get exactly what they deserve. The Met will get less reliable patrons hopefully grabbing up the cheapest seats, while those who previously bought them will have no opera at all. Trickle down... down... down.

© SAM H. SHIRAKAWA 2009

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