Saturday 27 August 2016

Gustav Mahler, Der Abschied & Symphony No. 9 - Salzburger Festspiele, Felsenreitschule

Performance 24th August

On Wednesday evening, the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester treated its concert goers to not only a powerfully captivating performance of Mahler’s infamous Ninth Symphony, but they coupled the work with the spellbinding ‘Der Abschied’ from Mahler’s Lied von der Erde cycle. The Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester were led by renowned conductor Philippe Jordan and joined by baritone Christian Gerhaher for the first half of this concert. ‘Der Abschied’ [The Farewell] features as the last song of the Das Lied von der Erde cycle, and although one of six songs in the cycle, this work alone makes up nearly half of the length of the entire cycle. By combining these two works, it is clear to see that the intention was to parallel the farewell story to the often critically presumed ‘farewell story’ of Mahler’s Ninth symphony. While critically, much debate still stands regarding the role of the farewell and the preparation for death from Mahler himself in this symphony, the Jugendorchester’s interpretation certainly captured the essence of the work and the incorporation of ‘Der Abschied’ provided a subtle enhancement of the ‘farewell’ features that the symphony maintains. In both these works, death lingers in the air and haunts the listener with a glimpse of a world beyond, and Wednesday’s performance certainly did justice to the tender interpretation of both works.

The Jugendorchester provided a flawlessly professional performance, and although made up of young musicians up to the ages of 26, the quality, precision and expressive maturity of this group is certainly enough to rival that of any professional orchestra. Their darkly expressive interpretation of the opening of ‘Der Abschied’ set the tone for the high quality of music making to follow, demonstrating exceptional technical precision and emotional sensitivity. The obbligato solos of the oboe and flute sang out over the orchestral texture with vibrant colour and warmth, creating a tender interplay between instruments and voice, as these exceptional performers accurately captured the tone of the text and played out as stunning solo voices in their own right.
    Gerhaher’s performance was tender and reflective, and the gentle, rounded nature of his voice aptly lent itself to this evening’s softer interpretation of the work. It was an elegant and modest rendition that despite its light and tender surface still maintained a rich, warm vocal quality creating a very emotionally authentic and captivating performance. The sighing melodic lines were sung with grace and precision, and Gerhaher skilfully deployed heightened accentuation of the phrases enabling the rhythm of the text to shine through the work. Equally, he demonstrated the sheer power, versatility and control over of his instrument in the contrasting forte passages, which showcased his upper range with all its wealth and warmth of tone, a flawless richness that appeared physically effortless and vastly emotive. Yet, without doubt, it was the last few minutes of the work that were the most transcendental. Gerhaher’s sighing ‘ewige’ phrases leading us out of the work were pure, heartfelt and captivating; gently moving and full of promise and hope for what lies ahead. Jordan held a long, and much needed, silence following the work, a moment of repose and compassionate reflection.

It is hard to know where to begin describing the Jugendorchester’s captivating rendition of Mahler’s Ninth. This exceptional group of young instrumentalists performed with emotional maturity far beyond their years, indulging in Mahler’s captivating melodies and did not shy away from producing a vibrant and bold sound, enabling the progressive harmonies, and orchestral countermelodies and textures to ring out around the venue. They demonstrated particular skill in their emotional reflections in the first sections of both the first and last movements, indulging in the music and no doubt further drawing in an already captivated audience. The first movement was perhaps played with a stronger dynamic and faster tempo than other renditions often deploy, which perhaps I would suggest might be constrained a little in order to accurately capture the score’s intentions, but this swifter tempo made for a sense of movement and determination at the opening of the work, and provided a fresh performance and different interpretation.  But equally, at the conclusions of both the first and last movements, they traded emotional indulgence for subtlety, humility and resignation, demonstrating a true understanding of the emotional sensitivity and power of the work. The second movement provided a welcome contrast to the first, played with a brisk and spritely tempo that was playfully agile, enabling the dance-like passages of the work to flourish, and the group aptly captured the sweet comedy of the end of the work, that was naturally smile-inducing, before the crashing of the third movement. The finale, a movement well known and frequently performed, was tackled with great elegance and provided a fresh sound for even the most seasoned Mahler enthusiast, however, I would comment that the final few minutes of the finale could have been played with a slightly softer pianissimo, enabling the work to fade out rather more gradually. I would like to put forward my admiration and praise for this orchestra’s exceptional technical skills and precision, praise which no doubt falls back on their brilliant leader, and clear and driven direction by Jordan. Jordan encouraged and deployed ruthless accuracy, sensitivity and vigour in these performers, leading Mahler’s work with true devotion and expression of the score, whilst still maintaining an utterly unique and refreshing performance of the work. It is known that when it came to conducting and performing his own works, Mahler was rigorous regarding the way in which his scores should be interpreted; I have no doubt that Jordan’s direction and the exquisite performance given on Wednesday evening from this charismatic and talented group of instrumentalists would have impressed even the man himself.
Reviewed by Genevieve Arkle

Saturday 20 August 2016

Charles Gounod, Faust - Salzburger Festspiele, Großes Festspielhaus

Performance 17th August

After a lovely evening with Thaïs I went to another French opera the day afterwards. Gounod's Faust is having its first production ever at the Festival as one of the main productions of this year. The story Faust is probably one of the most important plays of German literature due to Goethe's famous play, but also the opera by Gounod is normally a part of the repertoire. That the festival has never done a production before is a real riddle.
Reinhard von der Thannen created the whole production (including stage and costumes) and you can tell by his production that he worked a lot with Neuenfels. Very often I was reminded of the rat Lohengrin of Bayreuth where he also worked together with Neuenfels. Especially the role of the choir was responsible for some of my déjà-vus. The stage looks sterile and clinical with barely any colours except of white and black. The big sign with "Rien" that is there at the beginning already shows how von der Thannen approaches the piece. The direction of the characters is not really innovative and sometimes very unatural. Probably the best part is the relationship between Faust and Mefistofele where at least sometimes something like direction takes place. The most interesting part was the third act because it seemed more natural the the others and probably worked out best. Alltogether it was not a really exciting production and the festival surely could have done better than that.
Musically it was better because of the exciting conducting of Alejo Pérez who showed a very clean and focused score. He worked out the dramatic contrasts very well and especially the energetic choir scenes were definitely the highlights of the evening. Also thanks to the Wiener Philharmoniker who played accurately and vividly with French elegance and dramatic power. The different colours of the score succeded wonderfully and it was a pleasure to listen. Not only the orchestra, also the Philharmonia Chor Wien did a very good job. The many famous choir parts of the opera were magnificent (apart of the weird choreographies) and some of their melodies were stuck in my ear for the whole evening.
Marie-Ange Todorovitch sang the role of Marthe with a very sensual mezzo voice and her scene was quite funny. Even though she only had that one scene left she did impress me with a very lovely performance. Paolo Rumetz as Wagner seemed not totally well casted because his voice sounded not flexible enough for his short appearance which should have had a bit more lightness and easiness. Siébel was sung by Tara Erraught who sang very beautifully with a very balanced mezzo voice that has a lovely light, but still full timbre. She also acted very emotionally and gave a very touching performance.
Alexey Markov's voice suited the role of Valentin very well with a very aggressive and impulsive performance. His dark baritone voice was rough but also noble at certain parts. His famous prayer sounded lovely and earned a lot of applause.
Marguerite was sung by Italian soprano Maria Agresta who did a marvelous job. Her balanced full voice has the power, the control and the dramatic abilities to sing that role appropriately. While having a very creamy lower register her top becomes more and more shiny with ringing top notes. Her portrayal was touching and showed the inner despair of her role extremely well.
Ildar Abdrazakov was undoubtedly the singer of the evening. His dark powerful, but still really flexible bass voice is already a real highlight, but his portrayal of the devil was simply magnificent. He was so playful and cheeky that it was a pleasure to simply watch him jump around and seduce Faust or play his tricks with other people. His devil was full of elegance, cheeky behaviour and smart seduction. Bravo!
The title role was performed by startenor Piotr Beczala who is definitely one of the great tenors of our time. While having a very bright tenor voice and extremely ease top notes he tends to lack different vocal timbres and tends become a bit too light at the top of the upper register. Undoubtedly he managed the role without any problems, but it simply did not really convince me.
Alltogether it was a good performance, but not really one of the highlights of this year's festival. I would give the first Salzburg Faust 8 stars.
Reviewed by Daniel Url

Friday 19 August 2016

Jules Massenet, Thaïs, Salzburger Festspiele, Großes Festspielhaus

Concert Performance 16th August

For one night and one night only the Festival showed a concert performance of a real Massenet rarity that unfortunately is played too rarely. Thaïs is full of exotic rhythm and melodies that are simply ravishing. The beauty of the music is compelling and I could have watched the whole thing again after it was done (even thought it was already midnight when it ended). The opera would also have been a great chance to stage a rare opera because they could have done a lot with the opulent metier of the opera.
The performance was led by conductor Patrick Fournillier who worked out the different colours of the score very well, but sometimes seemed to hurry through the performance a bit. Especially during the famous Meditation (violin solo: wonderfully played by Felix Froschhammer) Fournillier chose quite a fast tempo. However, the Münchner Rundfunkorchester played vividly with great passion and a wonderful sense for the exotic elements of the score. The Philharmonia Chor also gave a lovely performance with a balanced sound and appropriate singing.
More than any other opera this one was supported by the young talents of the Young Singer's project and they showed that there is a lot of talent in the new generation. Especially Simon Shibambu as Palémon gave a very convincing performance with his strong bassbaritone voice which has a very dark and sonorous timbre. Also Elbenita Kajtazi and Valentina Stadler knew how to capture the attention of the audience with their looks and their singing. Their beguiling terzet together with Marielle Murphy (what a great coloratura voice) was one of my highlights this evening because of the sheer beauty of their voices blending together. Szilvia Vörös as Albine and Andrzej Filończyk as a Servant also showed the high quality of the YSP singers and proved that the project is one of the most meaningful projects of its kind in Europe.
Tenor Benjamin Bernheim showed as Nicias that he is not an insiders' tip anymore, but one of the leading tenors of the younger generation. His bright youthful voice has a very clear and beautiful timbre. He sang his part with such ease and passion that is was a pleasure to hear him and hopefully he will come back more often in the future.
Former startenor Placido Domingo added another baritone role to his repertoire with the role of Athanaël. Of course it is impressive that he still has the power and the vocal balance to sing such a role, but I will never understand why he does not leave the stage to the younger generation. Alltogether his performance was not bad, but surely not as good as a proper baritone would do it. However the Domingo fan club was cheering enthusiastically and were happy to see their idol once again.
The real star of the evening was Marina Rebeka who was jumping in for Sonya Yoncheva and gave a brilliant performance that was more than appropriate for the festival. Her creamy voice convinces with a very beautiful timbre, impressive vocal balance and an extremely passionate performance. Also her french diction was clear and really exemplary so that one could understand every single word. While her lower register has a very sensual creamy timbre, her top is shiny and powerful with a very bright sound. She sang the high d in the famous mirror aria wonderfully and her performance was rewarded with standing ovations after the performance. I loved that she seemed really overwhelmed by the reaction of the audience and was truly touched by it.
The best thing was that they repeated the final duet after the intensive applause at the end of the performance even though it was already midnight and they just sang a tiring performance. The audience went crazy afterwards and it was truly a night that will go down in the festival's history. It was a really impressive performance and definitely a highlight of the festival. Therefor I give 9 stars to the unique Thaïs in Salzburg.
Reviewed by Daniel Url

Monday 8 August 2016

Richard Strauss, Die Liebe der Danae - Salzburger Festspiele, Großes Festspielhaus

Performance 5th August

As one of the big highlights of this year's season in Salzburg the Festival made a production of an opera that has a very close bond to Salzburg and the Festival. Strauss' Danae premiered at the Festival in 1952 after the cancelled performances in 1944 (only a public dress rehearsal took place due to the cancellation of all performance because of the failed assassination on Hitler) and is one of the rarest operas of the composer. Since the world premiere there have only been about 20 staged productions and the score is so difficult, that appropriate performances are extremely infrequent. That the Festival is doing a production now is not only a great opportunity to see the opera, but also a very smart move of the Festival because who else would be able to do a staged production on such a high quality level? The production led by Alvis Hermanis is both, plain and opulent at once and is able to tell the plot in a very touching and unexaggerated way. The interaction between the characters was very natural and despite some ironic moments in the opera it was a very serious evening with wonderful beautiful pictures. The stage (also created by Hermanis) was quite plain and unspectacular, but became quite an exciting experience thanks to the video design (Ineta Sipunova) and the many colourful props. Also the colourful detailed costumes by Juozas Statkevicius with the elegant oriental looks supported the plot very well and helped to create a wonderful fairytale-like atmosphere. They did not dread any costs to make a very spectacular production including a real donkey and a gigantic white elephant on wheels.
The musical part was a least as luxurious as the production itself with Strauss expert Franz Welser-Möst conducting the Wiener Philharmoniker. Welser-Möst himself said that the piece it extremely difficult to play for all participants, singers and instrumentalists. He led a performance that convinced with great clarity, very sensitive support for the singers and it showed that Welser-Möst has a very deep understanding for Strauss' rather complicated and difficult music. The orchestra did a very good job following his lead and convinced with a brilliant sound and very virtuosic playing throughout the whole evening.
The cast showed that the Festival chose the best of the best for this opera. The four kings (Pavel Kolgatin, Andi Früh, Ryan Speedo Green & Jongmin Park) and their wifes (Mária Celeng, Olga Bezsmertna, Michaela Selinger & Jennifer Johnston) sang with great balance and especially the ladies were magnificent. They portrayed the four former lovers of Jupiter so thrillingly and with so much fun that it was a joy to watch and listen. Especially Celeng convinced with a gorgeous voice and a beguiling physique.
Regine Hangler only had a very short but tough appearance as Xanthe. She did a great job with a very strong and beautiful voice that makes me believe that she is going to be a voice to keep in mind. Her voice sounds like it could handle the great heroines of Wagner and Strauss with ease if she just stays careful with that voice.
Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke's Pollux had some difficult time with the volume of orchestra and choir during his scenes, but despite that he gave a good performance with a very clear and bright tenor voice. The voice has a very distinct timbre which suited the difficult role very well.
Norbert Ernst convinced as Merkur with a very bright but sustainable tenor voice. He knew how to bring out the comic details of his part and sang his role very beautifully.
Midas was sung by Gerhard Siegel who proved that he is more than simply a good Mime. His bright but heroic powerful voice suited the character very well and he managed the incredibly hard role without any big issues. Interestingly his voice gains more darkness in its timbre the lower it gets while the very top sounds bright and clear.
The secret male lead, Jupiter, was sung by Tomasz Konieczny who did a very good job in this strange role which is both, extremely high and extremely low at times. Konieczny managed the difficulties of the role very well and was able to not only perform it properly, but also convince in the role of the parting god. His powerful bass baritone seemed to be perfect for the role and he gave a very refined performance from the beginning to the very end.
However the highlight of the evening was Krassimira Stoyanova in her third German role with another marvelous role debut. Her Danae is simply compelling with a truly Straussian voice that has that certain silvery timbre and the bright upper register that is probably the most important thing for this role which famous for its beautiful phrases at the top of the upper register. Alltogether her performance was an event that one should not miss. Especially the touching third act was really heavenly beautiful.
Alltogether it was an incredibly beautiful production and probably also one of the best ones of the last few years here in Salzburg. That is why I can only give 9 points and hope that this run helps to rehabilitate this incredible piece of music.
Reviewed by Daniel Url

Tuesday 2 August 2016

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Così fan tutte - Salzburger Festspiele, Felsenreitschule

Premiere performance 29th July

My first opera of this year's Salzburg festival was the premiere of the (sort of) revival of the Così fan tutte production of 2013 which was transferred to the prestigious Felsenreitschule (rock riding school) and partly (actually mostly) changed. Only around 30% of the original production are left and 70% are new. Sven-Eric Bechtolf worked it through again and improved it a lot with many lovely details and of course with the help of the beautiful arcades of the historic hall. The huge stage was fully used even if it was just for some moments. It was never boring and the plain stage with the very few props supported the plot more than appropriately. Together with the beautiful costumes by Mark Bouman the production was already lovely to simply watch. The costumes were perfectly attuned to the different roles and helped to create a proper atmosphere.
Not only optically the production was lovely, also the musical part was on festival niveau with Ottavio Dantone conducting the Mozarteumorchester Salzburg. Dantone showed a very slender and focused interpretation with great support for the singers and very energetic phrasing. The Mozarteumorchester, having the name of the master in its own name, showed that it is capable of creating the proper Mozart sound that makes his music so special. With great range of dynamics and a wonderful sense for Mozart's cheeky phrases they played thrillingly and tastefully.
Most of the soloists were at least as good and sang very beautifully so that one can hope that the legendary Mozart ensemble of the festival will experience a revival. Michael Volle as Don Alfonso gave a thrilling performance including a powerful flexible voice with a warm timbre and a very vivid presentation. Martina Janková sang the role of Despina and also did a wonderful job. She played her role so authentically that she even relinquisched simple beautiful singing for a more exciting performance. She probably gave the best performance that evening and totally filled out the role of the cheeky maid.
Alessio Arduini sang a very virile and youthful Guglielmo and showed that by now he is more than just a good Masetto. Not only did he sing his role wonderfully, he also acted very naturally and gave a very convincing performance.
So did Angela Brower who was my personal highlight with a portrayal that was so funny and hilarious that you simply had to fall in love with her Dorabella. Her slender and flexible mezzo that has a very beautiful bright timbre. Her performance was really absolutely thrilling and totally convinced me.
Her sister Fiordiligi was sung by Julia Kleiter who convinced with a beautiful bright crystal clear soprano voice that seemed to be perfect for Mozart. Apart of the lower register where she could have been a bit stronger she gave a magnificent performance and showed that she knows how to sing Mozart appropriately. Especially her second aria was simply marvelous.
Of the leading quartet only Mauro Peter as Ferrando just did not fit in. His tenor voice sounded sluggishly, the upper register was stemmed and the whole portrayal ended up quite blankly.
Alltogether it was a very nice performance, not very avant-garde, but simply lovely to watch. It shows that Salzburg is definitely capable of doing unique Mozart performances and that is why I would give 9 stars.
Reviewed by Daniel Url