Jonas Kaufmann

Parsifal at the Met

Met-parsifal-2013* Notes * 
François Girard's production of Parsifal opened at the Metropolitan Opera on Friday. The contemporary set features stark imagery. The red lake that dominates the second act (pictured left, photograph by Ken Howard) is particularly striking. The angular choreography fits nicely with the staging and the clean costuming. The video is difficult to view in Family Circle, but seems benign and includes images of clouds, aurora borealis, and water. At times, the rippling effects were a bit overblown. The lighting is pleasing. The last scene involves Parsifal putting the Holy Spear in the Grail held by Kundry, a nod to the pagan fertility rituals that may have given rise to the Arthurian romances on which this work is based. For some reason this struck me as clumsy compared to the sleek modernity of Act II.

Conducted by Daniele Gatti, the orchestra played moderately, sounding neither austere nor sprightly. The brass was clear. The chorus was as impressive as ever: perfectly synchronized, strong, and full. Katarina Dalayman was not an alluring Kundry, but she did seem more than half-mad. Evgeny Nikitin was a convincing Klingsor. Peter Mattei was likewise believable as Amfortas, and his voice is immediately appealing. René Pape shone as Gurnemanz. His voice is warm and rich, and he sounds imposing. Jonas Kaufmann did well with the title role, though I find his voice less readily likeable than others, perhaps because of his nasality. Kaufmann was riveting in Act II Scene 2. He has a keen understanding of what he is singing and can convey this to the audience.

* Tattling * 
Every sort of bad behavior was on display for the prima. Watch alarms sounded, mobile phones rang, photographs were taken, some talked, others snored, and there was applause after the first act. During the performance of Act I, someone in Family Circle demanded, at full volume, that he not be touched again.

Faust at the Met

Met-faust-rene-pape* Notes * 
A new production of Faust, directed by Des McAnuff, opened at the Metropolitan Opera last night. Robert Brill's set is pleasingly spare, and the twin spiral staircases were put to cunning use. The transitions from scene to scene were clean and simple, aided by lighting designer Peter Mumford and video designer Sean Nieuwenhuis. Some of the images used were rather silly, especially the enormous red roses on the rear projection screen in Act III. The large projections of the characters heads were not flattering. Nonetheless, the moving clouds and green flames were effective in transforming the space. The costumes, by Paul Tazewell, did not appear to have a consistency to them as far as period is concerned. For instance, the chorus in Act II looked like they had wandered in from some entirely different opera. Kelly Devine's choreography was entertaining, people in lab coats spinning about and the dancing during "Le veau d'or" were particularly amusing. Overall, though it seemed McAnuff had some good ideas, the production simply seemed somewhat scattered and random.

The orchestra sounded lovely under Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who kept the tempi moving and the dynamics restrained. There were a few chaotic moments, but for the most part, the playing and singing were synchronized. The chorus was occasionally a hair behind the orchestra in Act II, but "Déposons les armes" and "Sauvée! Christ est ressuscité" were both sung solidly.

The principal cast was uneven. Michèle Losier (Siébel) sounded a bit raw, but she does have a nice brightness to her voice. Russell Braun was a serviceable Valentin, though I believe he and the flute were not exactly together in his first aria. Marina Poplavskaya did not impress as Marguerite, her high notes are ugly and her singing has no line to it, as her breath support is lacking. She does have a pleasant darkness to her voice at least. René Pape (pictured above, photograph by Ken Howard) was a convincing Méphistophélès, he moves well and the choreography suited him. Pape has a beautiful voice with a great deal of warmth. Jonas Kaufmann made for a fine, though perhaps dull, Faust. He has a gorgeous legato and perfect control. The baritonal qualities of his pretty voice came out in the last act.

* Tattling * 
Because of the gala pricing of this event, the tickets were not sold out in the Family Circle, and one was unable to purchase standing room tickets at the back of the house. Nonetheless, a few standees were to be seen there.

Loud complaints were heard during the music concerning personal effects left in aisles and the kicking of seats. Someone crumpled a plastic bag during Acts II and III. At least two watch alarms were heard at each hour.

Die Walküre at the Met (Lepage)

Walkuere-act-3-metWhilst the Opera Tattler attended a performance of Séance on a Wet Afternoon at the David H. Koch Theater on April 28, 2011, Miss LCU was nearby at Lepage's new production of Die Walküre (Act III pictured left, © Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera) with the Unbiased Opinionator.

* Notes * 
Of late, James Levine gets credit for simply showing up on the podium. The audience is so thrilled to see the ailing maestro that it seems he can do no wrong. However, I was not terribly impressed with the orchestra for the second performance of this latest Walküre. For one thing, the prelude was especially lackluster and rhythmically bridled. It was as if the orchestra was playing in exact unison to the measured beat of a metronome. There was a paucity of energy and agitato one would expect from music meant to represent a man who is frantically running from his pursuers in a storm. Thankfully things improved as the evening progressed.

As Brünnhilde, Deborah Voigt hit most of her notes and did not struggle with pitch. While she gave a very youthful, sassy portrayal of the valiant Valkyrie, her voice lacked nuance. She was generally at one dynamic level and yelped the high Bs and Cs when singing the word "Hojotoho." It sounded like she had hiccups and looking at the score, the composer did not intend for those octave leaps to end in clipped staccato. Voigt's interaction with Bryn Terfel as Wotan worked well. The two succeeded in establishing their close rapport and fondness for one another in Act II, making the heartbreak of their farewell at the end all the more devastating.

Terfel's Wotan was multifaceted and robust, even until the very end. He clearly did a fine job pacing himself. As Siegmund, Jonas Kaufmann was both convincing and lyrical. His voice carried effortlessly and his "Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnermond" consisted of one glorious legato line after another.

In contrast, Eva-Maria Westbroek (Sieglinde) gave a somewhat disappointing performance and the strain in her voice was evident as she fought through her last phrases in beginning of Act III, which are among the most beautiful lines of music in the opera. She did have cold on opening night, so perhaps she was still on the mend.

The highlight of the evening was, surprisingly, Stephanie Blythe's portrayal of Fricka. For the first time, I saw Fricka as something other than a vindictive, nagging shrew. I was reminded that she is a woman in pain, someone who has been deeply hurt by Wotan's transgressions. Blythe opens up her character's vulnerabilities to the audience, suggesting that perhaps she, too, deserves a bit of our sympathy. In order to uphold the Law, she demands punishment and justice, but we often mistake her for someone who is solely out to seek revenge.

Wagner was deeply influenced by Arthur Schopenhauer who was known for his pessimistic view of the human condition and his philosophy of the "Will," a concept so important that Wagner felt it was necessary to use Brünnhilde to personify Wotan's Will as a separate entity apart from himself. Schopenhauer also makes a clear distinction between punishment (to prevent future violations of the law) and revenge (motivated by reconciling past wrongdoings with the pure intent to harm and no constructive impact on the future).

Perhaps Fricka is after revenge and cunningly disguises it as punishment. Wagner leaves just enough ambiguity in his score to make us wonder. The true thrill of this particular production was not delivered by Lepage's ostentatious morphing planks, but with subtlety through Blythe's artistry and empathy for her character.

Regietheater seems to operate on the notion that in order for us to make old works exciting and relevant to the younger generations, we must to rely on shock value. The beauty of Wagner's work lies within the inconspicuous moments that expose human frailty and intimacy. Directors may consider paying more attention to the small details hidden in the score rather than embellishing the composers work with obscenely grand spectacles that are neither necessary nor relevant.

Jonas Kaufmann at Cal Performances

Kaufmann On the evening of Sunday, March 13, LCU and UO attended the highly anticipated song recital of internationally acclaimed tenor, Jonas Kaufmann. Co-presented by Cal Performances and the San Francisco Opera, the performance took place at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley. What follows is a discussion of the performance between LCU and UO.

LCU: Kaufmann is typically very expressive in his operatic roles and I was surprised that he employed minimal facial expressions and hand or body gestures with this program. It was pure, honest singing; not mawkish or overly theatrical, which is often the danger when opera singers attempt the German Lied - they can't seem to leave the drama at the door. But Kaufmann sang with disciplined restraint, relying solely on the nuances of his voice to articulate the emotions and meaning of the songs. His delivery was lean and exact, with that touch of German austerity. Now UO, I understand that last summer you sang with Kaufmann in the Bayreuth production of Lohengrin. How does his style and vocal technique on the opera stage compare with what we saw tonight?

UO: Well, I think it all boils down to one thing: Kaufmann knows how to act with his voice. He trusts the material he sings and knows that if he delivers it in a straightforward way, masterpieces such as Dichterliebe will speak for themselves. In this day of live HD transmission and emphasis on extreme naturalism and cinematic facial expression, I think singers feel compelled to exaggerate their facial gestures and body movements. Even when he sang Lohengrin, Kaufmann generally did what was required of him by the director, in terms of gestures and movement around the stage, no more, no less. Certainly he didn't change his technique. That's what makes him so unique. For instance, he sang Lohengrin's Grail Narrative in Bayreuth with all the nuance that he brought to tonight's lieder recital. He isn't afraid employ the entire dynamic spectrum of his voice, from ultra-soft to ringing, metallic forte. He's one of the few singers out there today who has the ability to sing through an entire spectrum of loud and soft, in a way that reads in large halls. And it all carried beautifully, in part, of course, due to the wonderful Bayreuth acoustic. It worked well tonight, in a hall that isn't acoustically as generous.

LCU: As a singer and voice teacher, could you explain the technical challenges of Schumann's Dichterliebe for the tenor voice despite the fact that Jonas made it look so effortless? He sings with the ease of Fritz Wunderlich!

UO: Two of the highest vocal hurdles of Dichterliebe occur in the very first song. The "strong, weak" stresses of the words "aufgegangen" and "verlangen" are situated right in the tenor's so-called "passaggio," right where the voice has to negotiate a register shift that is quite challenging. Then just look at the word, for instance, "verlangen." The pitch change from G to F# -moves through two liquid consonants ("l" and "ng"), so a seamless vowel connection in this tricky part of the voice is quite difficult. Also, most of the songs are set quite low. This is partly in order to accommodate a high note in "Ich Grolle Nicht" that is not so stratospheric that it becomes an quasi-operatic acrobatic feat, with everyone on the edge of their seats waiting for the poor guy to crack! Of course, I think we would both agree that Kaufmann could have managed this with no effort at all, but the tonalities of all the songs have to have a coherent relationship to one another, and not be transposed all over the place. So the cycle is quite "range-ey." You also have potential pitfalls in intonation, particularly in the song "Am Leuchtenden Sommermorgen," where there are a lots of really radical modulations. Coming to Wunderlich: he had a very different, very sweet and less baritonal quality to his sound when you compare him to Kaufmann. You really never think of technique when you hear Wunderlich, it's all like child's play to him. Kaufmann came close to this ease of delivery last night, I think.

LCU: In one of his interviews, Kaufmann said that there is a huge difference between singing and speaking the German language. Kaufmann's diction is deliberately round because he chooses not to 'spit' his consonants, allowing for a smoother legato line. You mentioned that he has been criticized for doing this and for sounding too Italianate as Lohengrin (even though Wagner himself considered it his most Italian opera). However, does the German Lied call for a distinct German sound with all of its idiosyncrasies intact?  At Bryn Terfel's recital just a few months ago, I noticed that he was very emphatic with his consonants and even though he's Welsh, Terfel sounded more German to me than Kaufmann. Does the mellowing out of the harsh and choppy qualities compromise the rugged beauty, character, and integrity of the German language?

UO: I think we'd agree that in Lieder, especially, text and music have to be co-equal. You can't have one at the expense of the other. But there are choices to be made; do you maniacally over-pronounce at the expense of vocal quality?  Believe me, a lot of German coaches want just that!  Zellerbach Hall seems to me to be one of those places that swallows consonants, so perhaps that accounted for a certain loss of clarity. It's a big question, especially in opera: when do you modify text and vowels in order to allow the voice to be free?   Kaufmann seems to me to be one of those singers whose credo is "prima la musica, e poi la parola", in other words, music first, then text, to put it a bit simplistically. My impression in Bayreuth was that those who didn't care for his approach to Lohengrin felt that it was too human, not "knightly" enough. It wasn't so much about lack of clear diction or a matter of style, as I recall. But believe me, the supporters of his Lohengrin there far outweighed his detractors in number!

LCU: I have to tattle on myself - I shamelessly hooted and hollered and cheered like I was at a Michael Jackson concert. At one point George Hume, who sat across the aisle from me, even flashed me a dirty look. I was having a religious experience and just couldn't help myself. What do you think of the Berkeley audience?  How do they compare with the audience at the Met and Carnegie?

UO: I guess you didn't see me sinking lower and lower into my seat! What's wrong with enthusiasm?  I believe European artists in general are gratified by our American, somewhat over the top applause. I thought the Berkeley audience was just terrific -- absolutely silent during the singing. I saw a woman following along with a vocal score, and most people didn't turn the pages of their programs in the middle of a song, causing a rush of brittle sound to interrupt the music. Many times I have the feeling that, at the Met and other big venues in New York, and particularly on Broadway, people leap to their feet in a robotic, automatic standing ovation. Maybe that's just to convince themselves that the evening was great, because the ticket prices are so high! I enjoyed the respectful, informed Berkeley audience – very European – informed, respectful and quiet.

Cal Performances' 2010-2011 Season

September 24 2010: Bayanihan Philippine National Dance Company
September 26 2010: Fall Free for All: Open House at Cal Performances
September 30- October 3 2010: Mark Morris Dance Group
October 7-10 2010: Circus Oz
October 10 2010: David Finckel, cello & Wu Han, piano
October 14 2010: Alex Ross
October 15 2010: Jerusalem Quartet
October 22 2010: Gamelan Çudamani 
October 24 2010: Jeremy Denk, piano 
October 26-27 2010: Benjamin Bagby's Beowulf
October 29-30 2010: Hubbard Street Dance Chicago
October 31 2010: Kremerata Baltica
October 31 2010: Alfred Brendel
November 13-14 2010: Zenshinza Theatre Company
November 20 2010: Bryn Terfel, bass-baritone
November 5 2010: Buika
November 7 2010: Ensemble Zellig
November 21 2010: Will Shortz
November 26-28 2010: Mummenschanz 
December 4, 2010: Christian Tetzlaff, violin
December 5 2010: Pomegranates and Figs
December 5 2010: Takács Quartet
December 11 2010: John McLaughlin, guitar
December 12 2010: Nicolas Hodges, piano
January 21 2011: Tango Buenos Aires
January 22 2011: Joshua Redman, saxophone
January 23 2011: Wallace Shawn
January 26 2011: Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano
February 3-4 2011: Kodo
February 9-10 2011: Ex Machina
February 12-13 2011: Zukerman ChamberPlayers
February 20 2011: Paul Lewis, piano
February 25-27 2011: Vienna Philharmonic
March 3-5 2011: Merce Cunningham Dance Company
March 4 2011: Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin
March 6 2011: Scharoun Ensemble Berlin
March 6 2011: Balé Folclórico da Bahia
March 11 2011: Branford Marsalis, saxophone & Terence Blanchard, trumpet
March 13 2011: Les Percussions de Strasbourg
March 13 2011: Jonas Kaufmann, tenor
March 18-19 2011: Nederlands Dans Theater
March 20 2011: Joyce Yang, piano
March 24-26 2011: Castleton Festival Opera
March 26-27 2011: The Tallis Scholars
March 29- April 3 2011: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
April 3 2011: Jessica Rivera, soprano
April 6 2011: The Silk Road Ensemble, with Yo-Yo Ma
April 19 2011: Afro-Cuban All Stars
April 23 2011: Kurt Elling, vocalist
April 28-29 2011: Cirque Éloize
May 1-3 2011: Les Violons du Roy
May 7-14 2011: Druid Theatre Company
May 31-June 4 2011: Royal Danish Ballet
June 13-16 2011: Ojai North!

Matías Tarnopolsky announced Cal Performances's 2010-2011 season at a press conference today. We were seated on the stage and the presentation involved several videos. Tarnopolsky seemed charmingly self-effacing, and at one point he said Schumann" instead of "Stockhausen," and made a joke about how they were easily confused for one another. The 2010-2011 Web site of Cal Performances goes live tonight at 12:01am.

Next season includes two Britten operas, The Rape of Lucretia and Albert Herring will be performed by Castleton Festival Opera in February 2011. Byrn Terfel and Jonas Kaufmann are both coming to Berkeley for their respective tours, Terfel in the Fall and Kaufmann in the Spring. Dawn Upshaw, the Maria Schneider Orchestra, The Australian Chamber Orchestra, and Peter Sellars are all involved in Ojai North!

Official Site | Press Release [PDF]