Friday, February 19, 2010

A Wagner Valentine

Deutsche Oper, Berlin
February 14, 2010

Berlin’s Deutsche Oper gave its supporters a valentine of sorts on Valentine’s Day: a performance of Die Meistersinger. Nothing special about that, were it not for the presence of Klaus Florian Vogt as Walther von Stolzing. Despite a uniformly upper drawer cast that included Michaela Kaune as Eva, James Johnson as Sachs, and Markus Brück, Kristinn Siegmundson and Paul Kaufmann as Beckmesser, Pogner and David respectively, it seemed as though the stage darkened to a pin spotlight on Vogt, whenever he was on the boards, which, as those familiar with the work know, is most of the time.

In the seven years since I first heard Vogt as Lohengrin in Bremen, he has become, justifiably, I think, internationally known as one of the finest Wagner tenors of this age. Considering how few really great Wagner singers there have been in any age, his emergence into pre-eminence may be more a matter of luck than talent simply outing itself. What is extraordinary is that he is also emerging as one of the great voices of this or any other age. That is a real accomplishment in the light of how many singers of widely varying quality are vying for attention via their press agents, recording companies and media machines.

Some listeners have described his unusual sound as “boyish” while others have called it sort of “androgynous.” Actually, it is neither. Vogt played the horn at Hamburg’s Staatsoper, before a vocal teacher suggested that he might have a brighter future singing above the pit, rather than playing out of it.
Sometimes things work out.

Vogt’s sound in its current disposition is indeed reminiscent of a French horn played by Philip Miller or Dennis Brain: sweet in soft passages, penetrating and dominant under pressure. It is immediately recognizable, it commands attention even in the thick of competition from other voices and other instruments. It never tires the ear. I’ve never heard anything quite like it. It is, in the grandest sense of the word, unique.

Wagner created a real character in Walther von Stolzing, and the role gives Vogt an opportunity to act. His Walther is youthful, quick to anger and ardently passionate, but the passion is imbued with intelligence and humility. You get the impression that he’s really listening to Sachs, matter-of-factly sung by James Johnson, when the Master of the Mastersingers gives him a lesson in songwriting in the third act. And the Prize Song in the next scene becomes, in Vogt’s voice, a cumulative rather than repetitive precipitate of the Master’s tuition.

With such masterful singing in a work about the Art of Singing (among a few other things), it’s hard to comment on the able efforts put forth by Vogt’s colleagues: the aforementioned aural pin-spot on Vogt tended to occlude them. Nontheless, Michaela Kaune was an effectively flirtatious Eva, Markus Brück portrayed a delightfully irritating Beckmesser, Kristinn Sigmundsson’s height enabled him to present a grandly imposing Pogner, Ulrike Helzel sounded pleasantly youthful as Magdalena, and Paul Kaufmann as David showed hopeful signs of becoming an Almaviva with whom to be reckoned.

The Deutsche Oper’s new Music Director Donald Runnicles stepped in for the originally designated conductor, so his somewhat lackluster reading may have been the result of brief rehearsal time and the effort to avoid disasters in such a wildly complex work.

Götz Friedrich’s production from the mid-90s hold up well, primarily because it never strays far from the composer’s stage directions. In fact, it is a delight to see the festival in the final scene look and feel festive.

The current run of Meistersinger is part of the Deutsche Oper’s Wagner Weeks, in which most of the composer’s works -- including a new production of Rienzi -- are being presented over the course of several months. Rienzi has attracted a lot of press coverage, largely because its producer has turned it into a quasi-allegory in which the eponymous hero bears the appearance of a certain Austrian-born dictator. I haven’t seen it, so I can’t report much more, except to say, I’m looking forward to hearing the Leipzig Oper’s production this spring with none less than Elena Zhidkova as Orsini.

If you’re in Berlin this weekend, do what you must to get a ticket to Meistersinger on Sunday, providing that Vogt is singing. There’s only one bad seat in the house: the one you don’t get. But caveat emptor: it’s pretty much sold out.

©Sam H. Shirakawa

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Monday, May 18, 2009

More Than Glamor?

Sam has moved on to Berlin where he caught Jonas Kaufmann's Cavaradossi:

Deutsche Oper Berlin
16 May 2009

Germany now has a star tenor and he's getting the star treatment: Photographs on music magazine covers, and billboards, shallow interviews, plus a High-C contract to be the bedroom eyes behind the wheel of BMW.

His name, by the bye, is Jonas Kaufmann.

A sold-out celeb-strewn crowd flocked to the Deutsche Oper in Berlin to hear him as Cavaradossi this past Saturday. The assembled Prussians, many dressed to the tens, gave him a hero's welcome, even though he's a native Bavarian. Nobody's perfect.

It would have been His Night, if it hadn't been for the Tosca -- Nadja Michael -- and the Scarpia -- Ruggero Raimondi, both of whom were willing to share the stage with Kaufmann but not concede it to him.

In fact, Raimondi received the biggest hand at the final curtain calls -- and with good reason. It was he who gave the most involved portrayal of the evening. What a pleasure to find that some opera singers are as good if not better than they ever were. While Tito Gobbi's Scarpia often left the impression of a sadistic bureaucrat, Raimondi, who made his Met debut in 1974, delivered an object lesson in implied, unspeakable malevolence.

Nadja Michael reportedly is no favorite among rear rung regulars at the Deutsche Oper, but she managed to keep the usual booing at bay at this performance. Hers is a huge but wieldy voice, capable of dynamic swings that sound inevitable rather than interpolated: an especially effective "Vissi d'arte."

Which brings me to swingin', I mean, singing Kaufmann. No doubt: he has more than glamor -- He manifests intelligence and imagination. His large, dark tenor is already casting a shadow toward late Verdi and, of course, the W word. In fact, he's set for Lohengrin at the Munich Festival this July. But for me on Saturday night, he also cast a shadow on his musical taste -- milking alargandi nearly to the point of full stop -- crooooooning "O dolci mani..." with enough syrup to induce sugar shock. Bitte, nicht so schleppend, Lieber Jonas!

It's not clear if veteran conductor Pier Giorgio Morandi -- who is new to me -- had a hand in the liberties Kaufmann took. Even though he received some catcalls, no one could deny that Morandi steered the orchestra effectively, while eliciting some details that I've seen in the score, but rarely have heard.

The production by Boleslaw Barlog dates from 1969. Like Barlog himself, who is now in his 90s, it shows no signs of wear.

© Sam H. Shirakawa

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