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Damsels in Distress

imagen J. Alfred Prufrock measured out his life in coffee spoons; I can count out mine in musical performances. The Royal Opera House’s latest revival of Die Zauberflöte was the first time I’d seen David McVicar’s production since it was premiered in 2002 and it evoked happy memories of that great occasion - one distinguished by a fine staging, fluent conducting and above all wonderful singing. Chief amongst the highlights were the neurotic, bittersweet (and much imitated) Papageno of Simon Keenlyside, the gloriously womanly and full-toned Pamina of Dorothea Röschmann and above all the electrifying performance of the Queen of the Night by Diana Damrau. By her own account her favourite staging of the role, her interpretation in London set new standards for the singing of this fiendish part and the DVD of her singing ‘Die Hölle Rache’ has been viewed nearly two-and-a-half million times on Youtube. Whilst the recent revival didn´t quite match those standards, it was a solid family-friendly show nonetheless.
 
McVicar’s production finds a happy balance between the playful and the philosophical: the paper dragon, the winged chariot for the Three Boys and Papageno’s costume all highlight the opera’s roots in Singspiel comedy, yet he doesn’t shy from pointing up its grander ambitions. When Sarastro recognizes Monostatos’ aberrant behaviour, he does it with a quotation from Shakespeare - “this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine”. Elsewhere, he freely magpies from earlier stagings (most obviously the famous Berlin production) to create a satisfying piece of theatre that allows the singers to do their maximum in terms of physical humour and emotional pathos. It´s a production designed to please all tastes, in other words, and he resists turning the opera into something akin to a German version of Pelléas et Mélisande.
    
The revival was conducted David Syrus (standing in for Sir Colin Davis) and he delivered in expected style - broad, spacious phrasing and tonal warmth were prioritised over hyperactive wit. His conducting style made a happy marriage with the tone of McVicar’s staging and as ever he was the perfect accompanist, always alert to the singers’ inflections without ever forgetting about the rich texture beneath.
 
The singing on this occasion was dominated by the men. As Tamino, Joseph Kaiser has already proved his chops at the Met and elsewhere (including Kenneth Branagh’s 2006 film) and he fulfilled expectations with untiringly ringing singing - his golden tone and confident German were a perfect fit. Alongside him, Franz-Peter Selig made an unusually memorable Sarastro: the only cast member returning from the premiere, it was a delight to hear such fresh, focused bass singing delivered with musical intelligence and acuity to the text. If the Royal Opera House ever decides to stage Die Entführung, he should be first choice as Osmin.
 
As Papageno, Christopher Maltman offered a not dissimilar interpretative style to Keenlyside but one delivered with a predictably more robust tone. As a famous lieder singer, he was completely inside the language and his slightly butch performance made a refreshing change to the more simpering performances offered of late. As Maltman reminded us, Papageno isn’t just lonely - he’s also sexually frustrated. It was a shame, though that Papagena (sweetly sung by Anna Devin) should have been made the butt of snobbish jokes: it was a nasty slip of McVicar’s that her main source of comedy should be a working-class appearance.
 
Kate Royal returned to the role of Pamina, having previously sung it at the 2008 revival. An admired and increasingly successful performer, I must admit my feelings are mixed. She phrases and inflects with care, acts with sincerity and is an unfailingly reliable and professional singer. And yet, to my ears, her tone has no real centre. Her delivery of 'Ach ich föhls' was emotionally intense and crowned by a floated top B flat, but her basic vocal production (at least from my seat in the amphitheatre) too often lacks real focus, as though she were doing an impression of Kiri Te Kanawa. Being no vocal technician myself, I find it impossible to pinpoint the problem but as an audience member her singing leaves me slightly cold.
 
The weak link in this performance, though, was the Queen of the Night. This role was originally scheduled to be sung by Marina Rebekha (who withdrew months ahead due to pregnancy) and her replacement was Jessica Pratt, perhaps best known for singing Rossini’s Armida at Garsington last summer. She proved herself an admirable performer who has the top extension for this part (no mean feat) but she is not yet ready for this level of exposure. She delivered all of her music with conviction and some fine musical detail, but her aspirated runs and apologetic stage demeanour made her sound like a cover rather than a principal cast member. I hope Covent Garden follows her career with interest, but at present she is really suitable only for smaller roles.

Fidelio
 
Singspiel of a less melodious but equally revered variety was on display in the revival of Fidelio shortly after. Beethoven´s opera has a range of tone even harder to unify than Mozart´s and to be frank lacks many of the instantly appealing numbers which make Die Zauberflöte so enjoyable for all. Its meddling of two quite different plots and musical styles -the opéra-comique business with Marzelline, and the political mission involving Florestan- is very tricky to reconcile and to be honest is hardly helped by the popular obsession with the latter. That said, it has moments of sheer magic -Leonora and Florestan´s big solo scenes, the Act One Quartet- which can make it a fine vehicle for great artists, though on this occasion the singing was again a bit of a mixed bag.
 
In her most recent performance at Covent Garden, Nina Stemme secured her place in operatic history with a performance as Isolde that will surely be discussed for years to come. Her fantastic voice, committed acting, unending stamina and sheer musicianship made for a rendition of this Olympian role that was simply unforgettable. The part of Leonora is less suited to talents – or perhaps it just has less to offer. Her interpretation always had beauty of tone, sensitivity to line and text and impressive agility for a current Brünnhilde, but it didn´t make the same degree of impression as her previous appearance. Her acting was consistently fine, but generally she fared best in the more heroic moments and it was in her solo scene and her Act Two interactions with Florestan and Pizarro that she proved her stature. A fine interpretation, but I´d rather hear her doing Elektra.
 
Endrik Wottrich was the sole survivor from the 2007 premiere and his performance started unpromisingly with an announcement pleading for consideration in the light of allergies. That said, “Gott! Welch Dunkel hier!” began enticingly and it was clear that Wottrich is a musical singer with a beautiful and heroic timbre. Alas, his voice never matched its colour in terms of weight or breadth and the big climaxes failed to hit home, with the top B flats sounded uncomfortably strained and a test of stamina. In the light of the announcement (and given the start of hay fever season, I have no reason to doubt its veracity) it would be unfair to judge him on this and he certainly performed with conviction, but one never had the impression of a volatile political rebel; Florestan needs a greater degree of heroic machismo in order for the meaning of this rescue mission really to ring home.
 
As Marzelline, Elizabeth Watts made a charming Covent Garden debut. Her sweet, Barbara Bonney-ish voice is on the light side for 19th century opera and I imagine she is careful what she chooses, but she delivered 'O wär ich schon' and the ensembles with considerable grace and carried well over Stemme in their duet passages. She would make an ideal Gretel for the next Humperdinck revival. As her father, Kurt Rydl also sang strongly, imbuing Rocco with appropriate moral confusion as paternal instinct, professional responsibility and the pangs of conscience compete to determine his actions. In the role of Pizarro, John Wegner slightly indulged in the temptation to shout but he happily hammed it up as the prison governor and Willard White made an appropriately noble appearance as Don Fernando (in what is one of the opera´s less credible dramatic turns).
 
Taking over from Kirill Petrenko, Sir Mark Elder initially revealed the dangers of brief rehearsal time in an untidy overture and some sloppy coordination between orchestra and stage. Usually a conductor full of dramatic tension, here his strengths were rather compromised by the constant breaks into spoken dialogue and like Stemme his most convincing passages were in the Act Two dungeon scene. Jürgen Flimm´s 2000 production favours modern industrial sets over a period setting and like most modern versions, seems more interested in the political dimensions of the story than the domestic ones; his lack of any satisfying resolution for Marzelline at the end seems symptomatic of this. It would be fascinating to see a staging that dared to set it in 18th century Seville.
   
All in all, though, this was a perfectly decent revival, if not one that entirely managed to resolve the piece´s inherent difficulties. Perhaps as audiences we are too saddled with intellectual baggage about the kind of piece we want Fidelio to be – a hymn to freedom, a political tract – to make sense of its disparate parts. Or perhaps it’s just that our perception of its stature is too clouded by our emotional investment in its ideological narrative. Either way, this was a variegated evening at the opera.

Este artículo fue publicado el 19/04/2011

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