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Jonas Kaufmann

Thursday, November 27, 2014


parterre box

November 23

All mysteries

parterre box“And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith… I am nothing.” Angela Denoke—the German soprano famous for her portrayals of oddball characters like Emilia Marty, Kundry, and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk—is an instinctive performer who legitimately deserves the “singer-actress’ epithet. Thursday’s recital at Opera Bastille’s Amphitheatre—which centred around Brahms’ Vier ernste Gesänge (Four Serious Songs), the fourth of which contains the above quotation from Corinthians—demonstrated that Ms. Denoke is capable of maintaining dramatic presence and commitment beyond the opera stage and into the more intimate world of Lieder. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ohsK9ga0mSA This was a highly ambitious program—especially for a mild Fall evening in gay Paree—and not just because the Brahms pieces are usually performed by a bass. The other selections were less intense but equally reflective. They included three songs by Zemlinsky—whose astonishing output continues its resurgence after being kept from us for so long due to Nazi censorship—and excerpts from Berg’s touching Jugendlieder (to which I took a liking upon hearing Jessye Norman’s recording. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8IDBiTbZ0Hw Yet Denoke’s approach is roughly opposite to the regal sound offered by Norman. Denoke seems to put the same emphasis on text as on tone, though she lets it rip in more dramatic moments. The first of Berg’s two settings of “Schliesse mir die Augen beide”—not the 12-tone one—was also performed. But that’s not all—I told you this was a substantial programme. Richard Strauss’ songs are, like Paris, (nearly) always a good idea, and Denoke was particularly effective in “Geduld.” which shimmers with l’impatience amoureuse, as the programme notes put it. Other Brahms pieces—such as Wie bist du meine Königin (How blissful you are, my queen) reminded us that this moody composer also had a licht side. Denoke seemed quite calm and relaxed—and efficient, too, never basking in the hearty applause. My first exposure to this singer was last year as Kundry in Parsifal at the Royal Opera House, a gripping production that seemed quite physically demanding for Denoke. Thus this was an interesting opportunity to see her scale things way, way down. And the glorious Lieder on the programme was well served as a result. (Yet I must admit I was so envious of my Parisian classmate who joined me for the recital; he speaks fluent German and understood almost every word!). Denoke was joined by German pianist Karola Theill, who has the great fortune of being able to write on her CV that she once accompanied the late Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. She was a highly sensitive accompanist with a clear understanding of this music, though I found she tended to fade behind Denoke whereas some of my favourite lieder experiences have involved singer and pianist working as equal partners. The recital was entitled, “Bist du bei mir” (Be, thou, with me), the name of an aria by Stölzel that was long misattributed to Bach. Indeed, we were with her. You may be shocked that where I come from, concert stagings of rarely performed (and much dismissed) operas are hardly the first ideas that come to mind when looking to raise money for disadvantaged children in the Global South. So it was quite a pleasant surprise to attend just such an event: a concert staging of Massenet’s Cléopâtre at the (graciously donated) Théâtre des Champs-Elysées raising funds for Action Enfance, an organization that serves vulnerable children throughout the world within the framework of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The performance was produced by ColineOpéra, a philanthropic organization I clearly need to learn more about… and promptly export to Canada. (French moment: The head of the organization spoke for so long at the beginning of the performance—“Je voudrais remercier tous et toutes…”—that sniping audience members in the balconies starting jeering each time he said “Enfin…”) And one other anecdote: I have learned by now that the good people at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées do not mind when those with the cheap seats (like me) try to find another empty, better seat just before the show. I may have been a bit ambitious this time, as I sat in a perfectly located seat at the side of the Corbeille only to be told, “Vous n’êtes le directeur.” (Oops—I sat in the GM’s place…) Not to worry, I quickly relocated to the back of a front-and-centre box, quickly finding out I was joining one of the main sponsors of the concert and his superbly dressed sons. And then there’s me with my khakis and stuffed backpack…. But back to the music. This event was intended to pair two of the most esteemed French singers of the day, Sophie Koch—known for her portrayal of Charlotte opposite Jonas Kaufmann’s Werther—and static yet creamy baritone Ludovic Tézier. But alas, Tézier cancelled just over a week prior to the show due to illness, and Koch (as Cléopâtre) was left without her warrior Marc-Antoine. And Marc-Antoine is one long role with highly demanding tessitura. Baritone Frédéric Goncalves came in and saved the day, apparently learning the role in only a few weeks. He had an unparalleled coach in Michel Plasson, the beloved octogenarian conductor who led his Orchestre Symphonique de Mulhouse and the Chœur de l’Orchestre de Paris in a polished if tentative performance. (Perhaps there were too few tutti rehearsals?) Mr. Plasson is closely identified with the operas of Massenet and he elevated this evening from a ‘mixed bag’ to a memorable artistic experience. Though there was nothing tentative in Mr. Goncalves—just a lot of colourless belting, but at least he hit the notes and projected well. Were it not for the orchestra, and Massenet’s evocative orchestrations, we would have had a difficult time identifying Marc-Antoine’s emotional trajectory. I spoke with a woman at intermission who called the baritone’s performance “une catastrophe,” but clearly that is too harsh. Pro bono and last minute, after all… Luckily Ms. Koch was in radiant form, offering a portrayal of Cléopâtre that balanced regal stature with emotional volatility. She has a voice of considerable warmth with plush velvet sound, ideal for this repertoire. She is also probably one of the only living singers with experience in the role, having scored a success in Salzburg in 2012. For me, Koch’s most memorable line was when, in a moment of vulnerability she pulled herself together and told the commonfolk to “Recognize your Queen.” The biggest delight of the evening came from—and the biggest ovations, save for Maestro Plasson, went to—tenor Benjamin Bernheim as Spakos, a slave who finds himself in a painfully brief, and ultimately fatal relationship with Cléopâtre. From his very first note Bernheim sang ardently with pristine legato, never venturing into the nasality we too often have to endure with tenors in French opera. He is one to watch. I very much enjoyed this opportunity to hear Koch and Plasson lead this rare Massenet opera, and I am pleased that the performance will significantly support the work of Action Enfance. Yet the elements—orchestra, soloists, chorus, conductor—did not coalesce as fans of Massenet might have hoped.

parterre box

November 21

Snow business

Every year I say I’m not going to another La Bohème because I’ve seen this too many times. And every year I end up going to multiple performances. I always find an excuse. “Oh there’s so-and-so singing and I haven’t heard him in anything but Madama Butterfly and that doesn’t even count because the tenor doesn’t sing at all after the first act …” But today after I won the lotto for yet another Bohème I wondered if I go simply because the opera (and production) is comfort food. At this point in my second career as an opera-queen-with-two-X-chromosomes, La Bohème doesn’t require very active, pins-and-needles listening. It’s like watching an old MGM musical. Another reason La Bohème remains such a popular opera for hardcore opera fans in NYC is that it’s one of the few operas at the Met that doesn’t abide by the much-loathed five-year plan. La Bohème is programmed based on availability, so you often get hotly-discussed singers who haven’t made it into the five-year-international circuit plan slotted to enter the garret. You also get many sopranos of a certain age given one or two pity performances. So yeah, a vehicle for new voices and old, almost-forgotten sopranos means there’s both excitement and nostalgia in many a Bohème night. Tonight’s was Exhibit A for how slapdash casting often is for this opera. It was originally going to be Kristine Opolais and Ramón Vargas as Rodolfo and Mimi. Then Anna Netrebko walked out of a production of Manon Lescaut in Munich, and Opolais jetted off to Germany to replace her. So Sonya Yoncheva, who was slated to be the Musettas in the January cast, got pulled out of Musetta to sub for Marina “My Voice is Shot” Poplavskaya in La Traviata and made her role debut as Mimi in the November/December run of Bohème. All this less than a month after having a baby. Oh, and Vargas also canceled and so Bryan Hymel (who sang the September run of Bohème) flew back from Chicago to sub for Vargas. Forget the five-year plan, this Bohème was like the five-day plan. The good news is the role of Mimi fits Yoncheva like a warm winter muff (or pretty pink bonnet). Her voice is warm and enveloping and projects beautifully throughout the auditorium. She timbre is the kind that never fails to enchant audiences—soft-grained and dusky with a flickering vibrato to give the voice a vibrant sheen. She phrases with delicacy but her voice can soar over the orchestra at opportune moments. She also looks perfect for the part, with the raven hair and pale skin and sad downcast eyes. In the last act she wore her hair in this perfect half-up-half-down-do that allowed curls of black hair to frame her face beautifully as she expired. Her Mimi is on the ladylike side—she doesn’t make a big show of blowing out the candle or sashaying her skirt. But it’s a perfectly charming performance and an A+++ voice. I can’t wait to see her in Traviata. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UzmmA4pYnKE Hymel was a more awkward fit for Rodolfo. This was my first time hearing him live. I had been under the impression that his voice was a big, exciting one with lots of squillo and huge ringing top notes. Um … not the case. In fact, I was shocked at how tiny his voice sounded at first. The middle is basically a cold, colorless, narrow tube of sound that projects poorly. This has nothing to do with actual voice size—onstage with him were voices of varying sizes and colors, but they all had a healthy projection into the auditorium. Hymel’s sound projection tended to die somewhere between the garret roof and the prompter’s box. His top is undeniably more exciting, but I was also surprised that for someone who can sing the 16 high C’s of Arnold in Guillaume Tell, he took two standard transpositions—one in “Che gelida manina,” and another one in “O soave fanciulla,” presumably so he could go for the unwritten high option, which in this case became a B instead of a C. I didn’t mind those transpositions, but I was surprised again that someone known for his high C’s would transpose down. His portrayal of Rodolfo was stiff and humorless. He doesn’t have the joie de vivre. I’m just going to write this off as a very poor fit between singer and role, as Hymel’s gotten raves from too many people whose judgment I trust. Myrtò Papatanasiu is a soprano whose work I admired in several videos, including the Herheim Rusalka. But her performance as Musetta was so bad that it really couldn’t be written off as the wrong role. First the positives: she’s an attractive woman. But the visceral reaction to her voice is along the lines of “wow that voice fell off the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down.” How do I cringe from thee? Let me count the ways. There’s that shrill, whitish top, and the hollow, throaty, old-lady quavery middle, and the hard, charmless delivery, and finally her interpretation of Musetta as a complete shrew. I now have two “Oh.My.God.” singers. There’s Jonas “Oh.My.God” Kaufmann, and there’s Myrto “Oh.My.God” Panatanasiu. One turned me into a crying fangirl, the other turned me into… a crying girl. The other males were okay. David Bizic (Marcello) was more than okay last year as Albert, but then again Marcello isn’t that showy of a role. Matthew Rose (Colline) doesn’t make much of “Vecchia zimarra” and John del Carlo hams up Benoit/Alcindoro even more than usual. Conductor Riccardo Frizza did the impossible and made the evergreen Puccini score sound alternately plodding and charmless with his unfocused conducting. He often allowed the orchestra to meander and then cut off phrases with the brusqueness of a nun rapping a disobedient child with a ruler. Despite Yoncheva’s opulent voice, this Bohème never really warmed up. The Zeffirelli classic usually gets happy cheers after each act and a warm final ovation. But tonight, only golf claps. Let’s hope the garret is a little warmer in January when I make yet another trip to see a totally different cast. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera






The MadOpera Blog

November 3

Ten Questions with David Blalock

Ten Questions With... David Blalock, tenor Jaquino in Fidelio 1.  Where were you born / raised?  Chapel Hill, North Carolina / Burlington, North Carolina 2.  If you weren't a singer, what profession would you be in? I would absolutely love to be a sports writer.  I am an avid sports fan, and writing about sports for a living would be a dream job. 3.  My favorite opera is... Peter Grimes, although the answer to this question changes about every 2 or 3 weeks. 4.  My favorite pre/post-show meal is... Pre-show:  Something light:  either a salad or a small sandwich. Post-show:  Double whatever I had pre-show. 5.  People would be surprised to know that... My brother is also a professional opera singer. 6.  What is your favorite song to belt out for karaoke?  "My Funny Valentine," in the style of Frank Sinatra. 7.  What is your pop culture guilty pleasure? Going to see movies.  I absolutely love the experience of going to the theater. 8.  A few of my favorite films are... The Shawshank Redemption, No Country for Old Men, Twelve Angry Men, Some Like It Hot, The Deer Hunter, Unforgiven. 9.  If we were to turn on your ipod right now, what five artists/songs would we see on your recently-played list?    Kurt Elling, definitely Jonas Kaufmann, Lake Street Dive, probably some other young tenors like Bryan Hymel or Michael Fabiano. 10.  What is the best costume you've ever worn?  A marionette costume for the world premiere of Oscar at Santa Fe Opera during the summer of 2013.  There was a scene that took place in a nursery and all of the toys came to life.  My character was a marionette dressed as a pirate.  I had giant strings attached to my limbs that were hooked to a handle above my head.  It's hard to describe, but I looked amazing.  Plus I got to walk around like a puppet, which was fun. Bonus: One question you wish someone would ask you (and the answer): Q:  What is your dream role in any voice type? A:  My dream role is Rigoletto.  I would love to sing the role, but also it would be a fun challenge dramatically. Don't miss the chance to see David in Fidelio, Beethoven's only opera!  Performances are November 21 and 23 at Overture Hall.  Tickets start at $18; visit madisonopera.org for more information.

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