06 Apr 2009
Nadja Michael as Salome and Tosca
Like Violetta Urmana, Nadja Michael had a substantial career as a mezzo before deciding to venture into soprano territory.
The Wigmore Hall complete Schubert song series continued with a recital by Georg Nigl and Andreas Staier. Staier's a pioneer, promoting the use of fortepiano in Schubert song. In Schubert's time, modern concert pianos didn't exist. Schubert and his contemporaries would have been familiar with a lighter, brighter sound. Over the last 30 years, we've come to better understand Schubert and his world through the insights Staier has given us. His many performances, frequently with Christoph Prégardien at the Wigmore Hall, have always been highlights.
On 9 January 2017 the London Festival of Baroque Music (formerly the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music) announced its programme for 2017. The Festival theme for 2017 is Baroque at the Edge. Inspired by the anniversaries of Monteverdi (450th of birth) and Telemann (250th of death) the Festival explores the ways that composers and performers have pushed at the chronological, stylistic, geographical and expressive boundaries of the Baroque era.
On Thursday 19th January, opera lovers around the world started bidding online for rare and prized items made available for the first time from Opera Rara’s collection. In addition to the 26 lots auctioned online, 6 more items will be made available on 7 February - when online bidding closes - at Opera Rara’s gala dinner marking the final night of the auction. The gala will be held at London’s Caledonian Club and will feature guest appearances from Michael Spyres and Joyce El-Khoury.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
In 2015, Bampton Classical Opera’s production of Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio - a UK premiere - received well-deserved accolades: ‘a revelation ... the music is magnificent’ (Seen and Heard International), ‘giddily exciting, propelled by wit, charm and bags of joy’ (The Spectator), ‘lively, inventive ... a joy from start to finish’ (The Oxford Times), ‘They have done Salieri proud’ (The Arts Desk) and ‘an enthusiastic performance of riotously spirited music’ (Opera Britannia) were just some of the superlative compliments festooned by the critical press.
How many singers does it take to make an opera? There are single-role operas - Schönberg’s Erwartung (1924) and Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies (1969) spring immediately to mind - and there are operas that just require a pair of performers, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart i Salieri (1897) or The Telephone by Menotti (1947).
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Like Violetta Urmana, Nadja Michael had a substantial career as a mezzo before deciding to venture into soprano territory.
Urmana carries herself with a poise that recalls old-time diva self-possession, and her gorgeous instrument bears a similar glamour. Michael, however, possesses a vocal instrument as slender it its own way as she herself is - lithe, even muscular, but essentially smaller in scale. Two recent DVDs of Michael in iconic roles for soprano - Tosca and Salome - reveal an artist made to be seen as well as heard - a skilled singer, an attractive woman, but most of all, a riveting stage presence.
Staged at the 2007 Bregenz Festival on its famous lake-side stage, millions world-wide have now seen at least parts of this Tosca production, as it was featured (in a confusingly edited action sequence) in the recent James Bond movie Quantum of Solace. It turns out to be a fairly spectacular visual staging itself, even without Daniel Craig hopping around, capping people. As a line in the booklet essay forthrightly admits, “Philip Himmelmann’s production had to allow for the enormous dimensions of the” Bregenz stage. The gigantic eye that dominates the stage backdrop, essay writer Gerhard Perché suggests, represents an interpretation of Sardou’s melodrama that sees Scarpia as big brother. Maybe, but the eye, which overlooks the action but of course cannot intercede, might just as easily represent the deity that Scarpia claims to worship and to whom Tosca prays in vain (and Cavaradossi declares non-belief in).
At any rate, traditionalists won’t care for any aspect of the staging. Dress is contemporary, with Michael as Tosca so sexy in her red power suit in act one and more contemporary gown for act two. Gidon Saks sports formal wear, and then removes much of it for what is most likely the first strip tease staged during the Te deum. Only Zoran Todorovic spends the opera in fairly dull clothes, even bespattered with his own blood (a stunt double takes a stunning inert dive into the waters in the last moments). Although the physical production looks like no other Tosca throughout acts one and two, most of the stage action remains fairly true to the libretto; for example, Angelotti hides away in a nook/”chapel” where later Scarpia finds a fan and empty lunch basket.
Act three, however, finds Mario imprisoned in the pupil of the eye, a precarious position requiring a visible tether. When Tosca appears, she perches high above him, standing on some ledge behind the top of the “eye” backdrop. Surely director Himmelmann designed this for the audience at Bregenz, where it might have made an impact, reinforcing the delusion of the reunited couple’s hopes for freedom. But cameras and editing dilute any such intended effect. Similarly, the jolt of seeing dozens of other imprisoned victims of Scarpia rejoicing at the news of his death only partially compensates for the distraction from the opera’s proper climax, Tosca’s leap (a filmed sequence projected onto the pupil).
Nadja Michael and Gidon Saks make any quibbles irrelevant. Neither is vocally perfect: Michael can be shrieky in her top range, and Saks sounds hoarse for quite a while. The greater part of their singing does well by Puccini’s score, and their performances do even better by the libretto’s characters. Michael’s Tosca is passionate, flamboyant yet unneurotic, and very physical - one more reason why the third act staging could have been rethought. And though Saks doesn’t bring much that’s new to Scarpia, the modern dress helps to give a fresh spin to his portrayal of the voraciously sexual sadist. Todorovic, as with many another Cavaradossi, manages an affecting third act aria, but otherwise his coarse, rough tone will win few admirers.
Ulf Schirmer gets a powerhouse performance from the Wiener Symphoniker (as opposed to the more famous Philharmonic). Sound and picture are first class. Be advised, however, that the singers all wear unobtrusive but visible mikes, almost in earpiece form, as necessitated by the Bregenz acoustic.
A few months earlier Michael had been in Milan at La Scala for a Luc Bondy staging of Strauss’s Salome, with Falk Struckmann as Jochanaan. Conductor Daniel Harding goes for a hard-edged, tense reading, ignoring Strauss’s arguably disingenuous proclamation that his score should be treated as if it were by Mendelssohn. The result may not be subtle, but it is often exciting, which helps, since Bondy’s monochrome set and purposeless updating don’t produce much of that quality.
A huge crack runs through the foundation of an outer area of the palace, and Jochanaan has been tucked away somewhere in its depths. Plantation shutters form one wall, and on the other side, a stadium-width passage leads to the interior of the palace. Occasionally TV director Emanuele Garofalo films the action from behind the plantation shutters, presumably for a “voyeur” effect, but merely interrupting whatever dramatic flow is in progress.
Susanne Raschig’s costumes neither seem to be biblical nor clearly of one particular epoch, though some look vaguely late 19th century, such as those of the soldiers. Why she clothed Peter Bronder as Herodes in silky cargo pants and tunic never became clear to your reviewer. Bronder, shorter by a good foot than his imperious Herodias (Iris Vermillion), camps it up like the comic relief in an operetta, diluting the dark undercurrents of the story (whose surface is dark enough, agreed). Despite the fine work of the supporting cast, especially Matthias Klink’s painfully deluded Narraboth, the first hour of this Salome drags itself along clumsily. Only with Michael’s dance do sparks of life appear, though mostly due to her efforts; the choreography offers nothing new. Michael manages to make Salome’s contempt for her step-father clear while still projecting the raw sexuality the twisted man desires to see. Vocally, she seems to have saved just the right amount of power in reserve for the long final scene, and it is better singing overall than she manages as Tosca. The wiry nature of her instrument proves deceptive as it fills out nicely for the climaxes. After making some fitful attempts at innovation and reinterpretation, Bondy strangely goes for the “crushed between the shields” for Salome’s exit, final evidence that no cohesive thought lies behind the production.
Neither of these DVDs is likely to earn general approval, but for your reviewer, from start to finish the Tosca at least held his interest, on which the Salome had a weaker grasp. They both serve, however, as strong evidence that Nadja Michael is one of the more interesting sopranos working today.