• Opernwelt - February, 2013, Issue Summary

    Interview

    Franz Josef Selig

    A leading international bass, particularly in the German repertoire, Selig originally studied church music at Cologne’s State Music University. Initially, he had no interest in opera and didn’t begin voice studies until after he graduated. He didn’t even attend an opera until he was 24, when he received a scholarship to Bayreuth and went to a performance of Tristan und Isolde. After the second act, he told another scholarship recipient that singing opera would have been presumptuous for him and he wasn’t even going to think about it. (Matti Salminen was singing King Marke, and Selig says he’s never heard such a big voice before.)
    Eventually, he did decide to pursue this career path, and his first permanent engagement was with Essen’s Aalto Theater from 1992-95. There, he received fundamental instruction in stage deportment as well as slowly and carefully beginning to build a repertoire. As he notes in the interview, properly developing a voice takes time, especially with the lower voices. Unfortunately, many young singers who ask him for coaching today are trying to imitate singers they hear on recordings, who are 30 years older than themselves, and artificially make their own voices sound large. But attempting to bypass stages in the voice’s development will only cause problems in the long run, such as a loss of flexibility. In his own case, his lack of familiarity with opera made him extremely cautious, and helped him avoid the temptation of singing major roles before his voice had sufficiently matured.
    He says many young singers today also lack good advisors to assist them with properly developing their voices. In addition, there are many conductors now who never worked as repetiteurs earlier in their careers, and as a result, have little or no experience with voices. So they tend to offer opera roles or concert parts to singers whose voices are not suited to them. He cites an example in his own career when he appeared as bass soloist in Mozart’s Requiem, and afterward was asked by the conductor if he would like to do Brahms’ German Requiem (in which the male part is written for a baritone).
    In his own career, he sang Verdi roles before he took on any of those by Wagner. In fact, he thinks singing Verdi should probably be a prerequisite for singing Wagner. Unfortunately, he’s now finding that he’s offered few roles in the Italian repertoire because he’s been pigeonholed as a “German” bass. He stresses that it’s always important to begin first with the text when one starts studying a Wagner role, as the proper treatment of the text is crucial with this composer. The choice of roles is also critical, and the singer should not attempt to force the voice into parts for which it is unsuited. This is particularly true for tenors, but applies to other voices, as well. Like Kurt Moll, he will not sing Hagen. Both he and Moll have mellower, more soft-grained timbres that just aren’t right for the role.
    Lieder concerts have been an important part of his career from the earliest years in Essen, and he regards them as a “wonderful challenge” which every singer should consider. He also uses Liederabende and concert appearances to periodically rest his voice; in the past few years, approximately a quarter of his engagements fell into this category. He also takes care to set aside sufficient time to spend with his family.
    When the interviewer notes that orchestras today are tuned higher than those in the 19th century, Selig says he has worked with various tuning levels and that, aside from those who have perfect pitch (which he doesn’t), the differences are nearly imperceptible. However, he does wonder what the impact may be over time on voices that are constantly required to sing at these higher pitches, and suggests one result may be shorter careers.

    Feature Story

    “Alles in einem Ei” (All in One Egg)

    Mao and his wife may be turning over in their mausoleum (or wherever their mortal remains have been deposited), but China has been slowly but surely undergoing another Cultural Revolution in recent decades that is repairing at least some of the damage done by theirs. The “big egg” referred to in the headline is Beijing’s National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), a mammoth, rounded structure that encloses a concert hall, opera house, and playhouse, and which has a total seating capacity of over 5,000. If Mao’s Cultural Revolution rejected Western art, the current Chinese government and the people enthusiastically embrace it. And western opera is an integral part of it. The audience at performances in the NCPA opera house is a cross-section of economic classes. (Communist country or not, China has 179,000 millionaires and 10,500 “super rich” living in Beijing alone, and the demand here for Western luxury goods is brisk.) With ticket prices to the opera not exceeding €100, one is as likely to see groups of youths in sweat suits as well-dressed couples at performances. And the average audience age, like that of the general population, is young.
    The NCPA has not only been importing opera productions from the West, but has been busy cultivating Chinese artists and mounting its own productions. President Chen Ping has brought Giuseppe Cuccia from Palermo’s Teatro Massimo on board as an advisor, and Cuccia is helping the NCPA to develop its repertoire. At the present, that means the “ABC” war horses – Aida, La Boheme, and Carmen – as well as other popular works. “For Zimmermann’s Soldaten or Strauss’ Frau ohne Schatten, the time is not yet ripe,” Cuccia explains. But Verdi and Wagner already occupy a firm position in the repertoire, and both of the Birthday Boys are represented in the current season’s program. In late 2012, Wagner’s Lohengrin was presented in a traditional staging by Giancarlo del Monaco (like Cuccia, under contract in Beijing until 2015) that was a curious combination of the latest technical wizardry and what was close to the old “stand and deliver” method of performing. The opera was double-cast, with the first group of soloists comprised of leading international singers, and the second made up of Chinese vocalists. The international cast was not as impressive as one might have expected. Egil Silins, singing Telramund with a compact, dark bass-baritone, was the standout among the four principals. Stefan Vinke’s Lohengrin sounded static and listless; Petra Schnitzer’s fine, soft-grained Elsa lacked stage presence; and Eva Johansson (Ortrud), once a Bayreuth Elsa, clearly has her best days behind her, with her intonation now disturbed by a persistent vibrato. The Chinese soloists were also a varied group. (Telramund was, by way of exception, sung by Romanian Anton Keremidtchiev, a giant of a man who towered over Lohengrin to such an extent that it gave their duel unintended comedy.) Yang Guang was the best, her intense, dark-hued Ortrud far surpassing Johansson, and her German pronunciation clearly articulated and idiomatic. Wang Wei was an unusually lightweight Elsa. Her bell-like tone had plenty of carrying power on top, but tended toward weakness in her mid- and low ranges. Her pronunciation was about as fuzzy as Schnitzer’s. As Lohengrin, Mario Zhang was simply miscast. His nasalized singing was also characterized by constant sobbing and gulping effects, and a practically unintelligible delivery of the text. The audience loved conductor Lu Jia, who led a cool, clear performance that was pleasantly natural and free of ponderous solemnity. Unfortunately, he was not always successful in maintaining a balance between pit and stage, so that the China NCPA Orchestra often drowned out the singers. In contrast, the NCPA chorus, only a few months old at the time of this performance, had a wonderfully sonorous quality and proved themselves disciplined and balanced.
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      Magazine

      “Licht, Edel, Schön” (Light, Fine, Beautiful)

      Erl’s first winter festival, held in its new state-of-the-art theater that outwardly rather resembles the stealth bomber, presented productions of Bartok’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, and Verdi’s Nabucco. According to the writer, Intendant Gustav Kuhn, who also functions as a conductor and stage director, is the first artist since Wagner who has had construction of a theater financed for him. Billionaire Hans Peter Hasselsteiner, head of the building firm Strabag, picked up €20 million of the total €36 million cost of the facility.
      Of the three operas, Bartok’s came off most successfully. Kuhn’s minimalist staging was complimented by Marianna Szivkova’s austere, cool Judith, sung with a flexible, well-controlled voice, and Andrea Silvestrelli’s wounded giant of a Bluebeard. In the pit was Maestro Tito Ceccerini. Kuhn himself wielded the baton for Le Nozze di Figaro as well as serving as stage director. With this opera, his hand was not quite as assured. Everything was light, fine, and beautiful, as the headline notes, but it was also sterile. The emotions and eroticism were missing, with cast members content to sing. And there was nothing especially remarkable in the singing, aside from Giulio Boschetti’s splendid Figaro and Michael Kupfer’s exemplary Almaviva. Kuhn was more impressive in the pit, where he led a clean, spirited account of the score by the highly skilled Festival orchestra, which he has carefully trained over the years. He was also on the podium for Nabucco, which became under his guidance no dry-as-dust, noisy affair, but a work rooted in the bel canto tradition. Anna Princeva grasped this, singing with a voice that would have suited Bellini’s Elvira, and adding stylish ornamentation in her big da capo aria. Most of the other soloists were quite respectable, though the singer (unidentified) in the title role confined himself to fighting and grimacing. Andreas Leisner’s staging seemed to revert to the old “stand and deliver” approach to theater.
      On the program for the summer festival, also to be held in the new facility, are Verdi’s Rigoletto, La Traviata, and Il Trovatore.

      “Ich brauche das Publikum” (I Need the Audience)

      Soprano Ingeborg Schöpf, a member of the ensemble at Dresden’s State Operetta for the past 14 years, received a Hollywood-worthy Big Break when she was called upon to replace an ailing Diana Damrau as featured soloist in the televised New Year’s Eve concert at the Semper Opera. After receiving a call on 30 December from conductor Christian Thielemann’s assistant, she quickly learned the four out of nine arias on the program which she had not previously sung, and grabbed three dresses from her wardrobe. At the final rehearsal, Maestro Thielemann reassured her, “No worry. I’m with you.” And that he was, with the conductor’s podium positioned close to her during the concert, and Thielemann leading the orchestra with consideration for his soloist. The concert was a tremendous success, with ovations for both the conductor and the soprano. And a few hours later, Schöpf was back onstage at the State Operetta, fulfilling her commitment there.
      Originally trained as a bio-engineer, she took private singing lessons on the side during the 10 years in which she worked in that profession. Though a member of the State Operetta, she has also sung opera roles such as Pamina, Agathe, and Marenka. She has replaced indisposed singers at short notice on a number of occasions, and says she prefers this to auditioning. “Through auditions, I’ve almost never received engagements,” she explains. “I need the audience, the situation.”

      “Gefördert, Verfolgt, Vergessen” (Supported, Persecuted, Forgotten)

      Sixty-seven years after Aldo Finzi’s death from a heart attack at 48 years of age, his only opera finally received its world premiere at Bergamo’s Teatro Donizetti. Titled La Serenata al Vento, the work was a prize winner in a competition held by La Scala in 1937. Finzi himself was a graduate of Rome’s prestigious Santa Cecilia Conservatory, and had been taken under contract at the age of 24 by the equally prestigious publisher, Ricordi. All of which should have led to a very successful career. But Finzi, a native of Milan, was the descendent of a Jewish family from Mantova, and the Fascists had come to power in Italy. Beginning in 1938, the composer became a target of the Italian SS. There is little doubt that the harassment he endured and the undignified existence in continually changing hiding places wore down his health and contributed to his early death.
      After the end of World War II, Finzi was largely forgotten. Only in recent years have some of his individual works been performed, primarily choral and piano pieces. This past November, the Italian label Preludio issued a box set of three CDs titled, “Aldo Finzi – The Greatest Works.” But these, again, consisted of his solo and chamber compositions. Then, finally, came the premiere of La Serenata al Vento, in the presence of Finzi’s (now elderly) son, Bruno, who had the bittersweet satisfaction of seeing his father’s final wish fulfilled.
      Although its action is set in the 19th century, the opera itself was a courageous move by Finzi, as it dealt with the subject of forced marriages at a time when Mussolini had banned divorce. The “povera ragazza,” Loly, resists the efforts of her father, Colonel Dagoberto, to marry her off against her will. In Bergamo, this role was sung by Ukrainian soprano Shirelle Dashevsky, who melted hearts with her bel canto laments. The combined forces of the Opera Academy and Bergamo Festival Orchestras, under Diego Montrone, played enthusiastically, but occasionally threatened to overwhelm the singers with their volume. The magazine’s writer only found the staging by Otello Cenci lacking a similar courage. Opportunities to explore the connections among the history of the times, the composer’s life, and the opera’s story were completely avoided.

      “Homage”

      Tom Williams has written a biography of Stefanos Lazaridis, one of the most important set designers in Great Britain, who died in 2010. Illustrated with photos of his sets, many of them for the English National Opera, the volume includes interviews with David Pountney, Peter Jonas, Graham Vick, and other noted directors. The book is available from Amazon, and costs €52.99.

      “Wenn das Wünschen doch helfen würde!” (If Wishing Would Only Help)

      Robert Carsen’s recent production of Prokofiev’s Love of Three Oranges at the Deutsche Oper Berlin was apparently intended to cheer up the city’s residents in the face of Berlin’s financial troubles. The three oranges were represented by huge orange crates labeled “Komische Orange,” “Staatsorange,” and “Deutsche Orange” – a clear reference to the capital’s three opera houses. Costumes, scenery, and props also helped to recall the city’s history in theater, varieté, and film – perhaps a reminder to Berliners of the cultural riches surrounding them. And the happy ending had the three opera houses symbolically placed in harmonious unanimity.
      Given the state of the municipal budget, Berliners may well need cheering up these days. There is not only the debacle of the renovation of the State Opera house on Unter den Linden, which has been plagued by repeated delays and cost overruns. There is also a €61 billion debt burden on the city’s coffers resulting from cost miscalculations in construction of the Schönefeld airport. The Deutsche Oper’s Intendant, Dietmar Schwarz, has a problem on his own hands with the old woodworking shop that’s supposed to be converted into an experimental theater. As things stand, it won’t happen without assistance from private sponsors.

      “Sizilianische Vesper” (Sicilian Vespers)

      The ongoing feud between Antonio Cognata, General Intendant of Palermo’s Teatro Massimo, and the theater employees finally reached a point late last year at which authorities in Rome had enough. On 4 December, Italy’s Minister of Culture, Lorenzo Ornaghi, appointed Fabio Carapezza Gutturo as acting manager of the Fondazione Teatro Massimo for the next six months. This followed the resignation of (recently reelected) Palermo Mayor Leoluca Orlando as the Foundation chairman as a gesture of sympathy with the employees. Prior to that, there had been strikes and an occupation of the building by workers, culminating in their formal demand on 28 September for the dismissal of Cognata and his staff. All of this has prompted ANCAM, the organization of Italian music critics, to rally to Cognata’s defense. In a 5 December press release, ANCAM characterized demands for Cognata’s removal as politically motivated.
      The back story is complicated. After the theater finally reopened in 1997 following a protracted renovation, it was plagued by a series of problems that included rising debt and declining subscriptions. For a time, theater leadership was a revolving door, caused at least in part by quarrels among local functionaries of the former Berlusconi coalition. Following the dismissal of Orlando protégé Francesco Giambrone as General Director in 2002, baritone Claudio Desderi served only 16 months in the position and was then succeeded by the actor Pietro Carriglio, who lasted only 11 months. Carriglio’s dictatorial style alienated many directors, who refused to bring their productions to Palermo. When Cognata arrived in 2004, the theater had a €27 million debt. And it has been pointed out by his defenders that he’s been able to bring that amount down to €16 million.
      Of course, the debt reduction involved budget cuts, which meant job losses. Labor Union leader Maurizio Rosso complains about a loss of 150 jobs from a total of approximately 500 positions, a ban on overtime work, and cutbacks in the workshops for props and costumes, the tailoring department, and stage and lighting equipment that were once the pride of the theater. The magazine’s writer also mentions that the situation is complicated by social conditions in Sicily, where a scarcity of jobs, informal power structures, and a lack of political transparency all intersect. Besides the regular theater employees, there are a number of hand-picked “associates” and “advisors” whose precise functions are as unclear as their salaries. On top of that, the theater is a lucrative source of contracts for construction, catering, transportation, public relations, and other companies.

      “So nah, so fern” (So near, so far)

      In December, 2012, the opera world lost two noted sopranos whose careers were symbolic of the Cold War era during which they were active. The Swiss native Lisa della Casa was a valued ensemble member of the Vienna State Opera under the aegis of Josef Krips, Karl Böhm, and Herbert von Karajan, and a star on international stages and at the Salzburg Festival. A leading interpreter of Strauss and Mozart roles who was dubbed “Arabellissima,” she retired in 1973 after singing her final Arabella. The Russian Galina Vishnevskaya grew up with her grandparents during the Siege of Leningrad. She was a major artist at the Bolshoi beginning in 1953, but that status had its price. Under the Communist government, she was essentially a slave of the theater, at the beck and call of Party functionaries. She and her husband, Mstislav Rostropovich, were friends with Shostakovich and Alexandr Solzhenitzyn, which didn’t endear them to Soviet authorities. Finally, what she termed the “quiet strangulation” through appearance and travel restrictions became too great, and the couple emigrated to the West in 1974. But while he was able to continue his career afterward, she, at the age of 48, was not as successful. What della Casa then was for Mozart and Strauss, Vishnevskaya was for 19th century Russian opera. In addition, she was a noted Violetta, Aida, Tosca, Butterfly, and Liu.

      “Operette und Originalklang” (Operetta and Original Sound)

      One usually doesn’t think of Historically Informed Performance practices in connection with operetta. But Florian Ziemen, Assistant General Music Director at Giessen’s City Theater, did. In preparation for conducting Eduard Künnecke’s Der Vetter aus Dingsda (The Cousin From Nowhere) at the Baden State Theater in Karlsruhe, he researched original materials in Berlin and listened to early recordings. The result could be heard in the sound he drew from the Baden State Orchestra. With its influences from 1920s jazz, film, Léhar, and even the late Romantic or Expressionistic operas, Künnecke’s music had a much blunter, more radical quality than is heard on the watered-down versions on 1950s and ‘60s recordings of the work. Obviously on the same wavelength as Ziemen was stage director Bernd Mottl, who allowed this burlesque comedy of errors to express its original charm without seeming outdated. The action was set, as intended, in a castle, but was updated to the 1960s. Finally, Ziemen and Mottl could rely on a group of soloists well-versed in the three demands of operetta: singing, speaking, and dancing. The last-named was especially important, since the production used Otto Pichler’s original choreography.

      “Kein Zuckerschlecken” (No piece of sugar)

      In later years, Wagner looked back on his second opera, Das Liebesverbot, as one of the sins of his youth. But what he would have made of the treatment it received at Radebeul’s Saxon District Theater is anyone’s guess. Apparently, conductor (and Opera Director) Jan Michael Horstmann and Regisseur Hinrich Horstkotte decided to treat the entire work as a big joke and turned it into a parody of Wagner’s musical idiom. In the pit, Horstmann let the orchestra blast away, while onstage, chorus and soloists let loose with everything they had. In Horstkotte’s staging, the noise-plagued citizens of Palermo clapped their hands over their ears to ward off the thundering sound. Those in the audience may have wished to do likewise. But, as the writer notes, the singers’ vocal chords may have been strained, one’s own head may have been ringing, but things were never boring. And the soloists managed to get through their difficult roles “accident free,” as she phrases it. She also expresses her opinion that performing this opera was a daring choice for a small theater that has recently come through a turbulent period. It is now a private company rather than a public institution, a change that prompted the early departure of Intendant Christian Schmidt in Fall, 2011. (It’s a bit of an odd situation, since the regional government is the sole shareholder in the new private business.) With privatization, the theater lost its own orchestra, which Schmidt’s successor, Manual Schöber, admits is a challenge. In compensation, this first season for which he is responsible offers more premieres, more performance venues, and more education outreach efforts than in the past. Meanwhile, as is not unusual in small houses, some of the singers from Das Liebesverbot had to appear in the following day’s performance of the operetta, Im weissen Rössl. And on the day after that, a double performance of Hänsel und Gretel was scheduled.

      “Auf Wanderschaft” (On Travels)

      The headline refers to the changing performance sites for Munich’s City Theater while the house on the Gärtnerplatz is undergoing a three-year renovation. The production of Im weissen Rössl held in a theater tent earlier in the season was sparsely attended, but performances of Don Pasquale in the Cuvilliés Theater were sold out. The latest opera, a concert version of Arthur Honegger’s Johanna auf dem Scheiterhaufen (Joan at the Stake), took place in the Old Congress Hall. To compensate for the absence of scenery, Munich’s legendary lighting master Max Keller was brought in, and he set the mood with a striking display of colors. Julia Sternberger’s Joan was a “monument of faith,” with great urgency in her declamation, while Michael von Au was a Mephistophelean Brother Dominic. The chorus and orchestra are in the spotlight in Honegger’s work, and the City Theater forces made the most of their opportunity. Principal conductor Marco Comin paced the performance carefully, only loosening the reins at the opera’s finale.

      “Sein oder nicht sein” (To be or not to be)

      The global economic troubles have created tough times in Spain, and the major opera houses in Valencia, Barcelona, and Madrid have been hit hard. Public funding has plummeted, private sponsorships have been shrinking. In Valencia, a 2008 budget of €51 million had sunk to €28.5 million by 2012, with the public subsidy during the same period reduced by more than half (from €35.8 million down to €14.5 million). Sponsor contributions dropped by €3 million over the same four years. From 286 full-time positions in 2008, 71 had been cut by 2012. Only 54 members of the orchestra that was founded in 2006 are still under firm contracts; in contrast, the small German theaters in Cottbus and Bielefeld each have 74 musicians under contract.
      The situation isn’t much better in Barcelona and Madrid. The Liceu, Spain’s oldest, most famous opera house, saw its 2008 budget of €57.2 million drop to €43 million by 2012. Public funding dropped by €10.6 million over the four years, and of 341 full-time positions in 2008, 99 had been cut by last year. The orchestra particularly suffered. Of the 104 musicians employed in the 2006-07 season, only 70 remain, and further cuts are a possibility. The mid-size and small German houses in Bonn and Braunschweig, respectively, have larger choruses than the Liceu.
      At Madrid’s Teatro Real, Intendant Gerard Mortier has seen a €10 million reduction in public subsidies since 2009, and additional cuts are expected. While Valencia and Barcelona are trying to cope with the revenue losses by participating in more co-productions, scaling back the number of performances, and programming repertoire favorites, Mortier has chosen a different strategy. He won’t back down on his adventurous programming, and he won’t agree to cuts in the chorus and orchestra. Instead, expensive guest appearances from the Salzburg and Baden Baden Festivals are being dropped, and Madrid will rent out its own carefully developed new productions to other houses. A major fund-raising campaign is also projected to bring in €4 million from private donors and sponsors.
      Unfortunately, there is more trouble on the horizon. The value-added tax has recently been increased from eight to 21 percent.

      “Old Fashioned”

      That’s how tenor Saimir Pirgu describes himself. In this short interview, he recalls his upbringing in Communist Albania, and talks about his career choices and working with Angela Gheorghiu. Some notes:
      - Under the old regime, government commissions would visit Albanian kindergartens to assess the children’s talents. Parents would then receive an official letter telling them what their child was to study. Pirgu’s parents were told he had to study violin – which he did, though he hated it and preferred the piano.
      - He decided to study voice after watching the telecast of The Three Tenors’ concert from Caracalla. He found a voice teacher in Tirana, who not only confirmed that he’s a tenor, but told him he needed to go to Italy to study. He then applied to the universities in Milan, Rome, and Bolzano, and was accepted by the last-named. This was essential, since Albanians were not allowed to travel abroad for study unless they could produce admissions documents from a foreign university.
      - He describes himself as a lyric tenor and is content with his voice and repertoire. He has no desire to take on heavier roles. He has been urged to sing Puccini, but at present, he is confining himself to Rinuccio and Rodolfo. He has already sung the latter part in Bern, but is taking a two-year break before singing it again in 2014 with the Washington National Opera.
      - He confesses that he was initially afraid of Gheorghiu, but then told himself that she was a Ferrari and he must be Michael Schumacher (a noted Formula One driver) . . . He says he learned from her never to accept small roles. The houses lose respect for singers who only take on these small parts.
      - He wasn’t afraid of Woody Allen, who directed the Los Angeles production of Gianni Schicchi, in which he sang. But working with Allen wasn’t a very pleasant experience, either. Allen wouldn’t talk with the singers and treated them like film or stage actors; they were expected to know themselves what they were doing.
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      In Focus – Live Performance Reviews

      - Meyerbeer: Robert le diable – Royal Opera House, London
      Conductor: Daniel Oren
      Director: Laurent Pelly
      Cast: Bryan Hymel, John Relyea, Patrizia Ciofi, Marina Poplavskaya, Jean-François Borras, et. al.
      Reviewer’s evaluation: A good portion of the article is devoted to a discussion of critical editions of Meyerbeer’s operas and performance practices at the Paris Opéra in the early 19th century. In the case of the latter, new operas were worked on over a period of months by the team of composer, librettist, set designer, singers, and dancers, with a performance version only arrived at by the time rehearsals had concluded. More often than not, this final version had been shaped by a series of compromises made during the work period. As the result of research conducted for preparation of new critical editions, musicologists and others can now access the material from the original partitur that was cut during rehearsals. According to the reviewer, “Use of this new edition is simply indispensible for understanding the works and their position in music history.” Since the Meyerbeer Institute and Ricordi’s Munich branch have recently issued new editions for Robert le diable and Le Prophéte, it was hoped that the Royal Opera would make use of this material in their new production.
      It didn’t happen, with the exception of some tiny details that could hardly be perceived. Missing were precisely those passages, especially in the second and fourth acts, that were crucial to understanding both the story and the opera’s spiritual background. One example is Bertram’s great aria, directed at Robert immediately before the final catastrophe, and the duet into which it leads. Bertram’s hopeless love for his son is made clear – perhaps too clear in its open eroticism. Before the premiere, Meyerbeer replaced both aria and duet with a new, short aria for Bertram, and that’s what audiences at Covent Garden heard. Even though the new critical edition has now made this original music available . . .
      To make the opera’s plot credible to modern audiences is a challenge for stage directors. The reviewer suggests that possible solutions are to transfer the action to another time or place, or to opt for a timeless fantasy setting. But what the director should not do, says the reviewer, is to treat the horror romance aspects of the story ironically. And that’s exactly what Laurent Pelly did. The result was a staging that weakened the plot’s dramatic tension for long stretches. Its finest moments came, instead, in the character development of the individual figures.
      The musical performance was far more impressive, with a cast that was fully up to the vocal and theatrical requirements of Meyerbeer’s demanding roles. The exemplary soloists were suitably partnered by Maestro Daniel Oren and the outstanding ROH Orchestra in the pit.

      - Donizetti: Maria Stuarda – Metropolitan Opera, New York
      Conductor: Maurizio Benini
      Director: David McVicar
      Cast: Joyce Di Donato, Elza van der Heever, Matthew Polenzani, Joshua Hopkins, Maria Zifchak, Matthew Rose
      Reviewer’s evaluation: The only real weak point here was Maurizio Benini’s competent but noticeably uninspired conducting. (And why did he cut the overture?) Joyce Di Donato was fabulous in the title role, and if parts of her music had to be transposed down to suit her mezzo range, the reviewer points out that transpositions in this part were also made for Maria Malibran, Joan Sutherland, and Beverly Sills. Matthew Polenzani brought cultivated musicality, a fine sense of style, and the requisite Italianate quality to the passive-reactive character of Leicester. But creating a believable psychological figure out of the vacillating courtier eluded both the tenor and director David MVicar. Elza van der Heever was a bold Elizabeth with secure intonation and top register. But her Italian diction was unclear in the recitatives, and her acting at times bordered on caricature – though McVicar gets the blame for the latter, having her stomp around the stage in Bette Davis style. In his Met debut, Joshua Hopkins gave a thoroughly solid performance as the formidable Cecil. Also fine were Matthew Rose as Talbot and Maria Zifchak as Mary’s maid, Anne Kennedy.
      As in last year’s production of Anna Bolena, this second installment in the Met’s Donizetti Queens series featured lavish period costumes. The sets were more spare, but also more visually appealing than the dark setting for Anna Bolena. Aside from the Bette Davis business, McVicar’s direction created ideal conditions for sensitive listening and interaction among the characters.

      - Verdi: La Traviata – Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie/de Munt, Brussels
      Conductor: Ádám Fischer
      Director: Andrea Breth
      Cast: Simona Saturová, Sébastien Guèze, Scott Hendricks, Till Fechner, Carole Wilson, et. al.
      Reviewer’s evaluation: Instead of the story of the 19th century Parisian courtesan, audiences in Brussels got an exposé on 21st century human trafficking – especially with women from eastern Europe – and the general misbehavior of the (male) upper class elite. Certainly, the former is an extremely serious problem. And the decision of a German insurance firm to reward its top employees with the services of prostitutes is repugnant. To an extent, Breth’s concept worked and wasn’t just aiming at provocation. (Imagine drunken guests at Violetta’s Act I soirée barfing in Annina’s lap.) But it shifted the drama’s emphasis away from the personal relationship between Violetta and Alfredo, and reduced much else to conventional theater. This was compounded by Simona Saturová’s bland Violetta. She sang beautifully, with an elegantly produced voice, accurate coloratura, and a shimmering top. But her character was so lacking in emotion that one wondered what Alfredo and Baron Douphol found so irresistible. In contrast, Sébastien Guèze was fully committed as an impetuous Alfredo, but his voice was minus a certain suppleness and finish. “De’ miei bollenti spiriti” sounded almost declaimed. As Giorgio Germont, Scott Hendricks produced a worn baritone with little luster. Ádám Fischer’s conducting was also a rather rough affair with little finesse.

      - Wagner: Der fliegende Holländer – Zürich Opera
      Conductor: Alain Altinoglu
      Director: Andreas Homoki
      Cast: Bryn Terfel, Anja Kampe, Matti Salminen, Marco Jentzsch, Liliana Nikiteanu, Fabio Trümpy
      Reviewer’s evaluation: Modern audiences don’t believe in ghost stories – or so said Zürich’s new Intendant, Andreas Homoki, in the program for his production of Der fliegende Holländer. So the Dutchman became a surrealistic figure, an “Un-dead” with voodoo associations (in which modern audiences apparently do believe). If Breth in Brussels wanted to draw attention to human trafficking, Homoki seemed more interested in exploring issues of colonialism and xenophobia than telling Wagner’s story of redemption through self-sacrificing love. Daland became a capitalist from the early 1870s, with the wall of his shipping office dominated by a map of Africa with the old colonial names and boundaries.
      In any case, the singing was exceptional, led by Bryn Terfel’s Dutchman and Anja Kampe’s Senta. These two left absolutely nothing to be desired in their interpretations. Matti Salminen’s portrait of Daland is a familiar one (though he’s also good for a few surprises), and his sonorous, warm bass still captivates listeners. Marco Jentzsch had been announced as having a cold, but he managed to give a bravura account of Erik’s first aria. Unfortunately, things didn’t go so well with the second one. Fabio Trümpy was an appealingly lyrical Steersman, and Zürich stalwart Liliana Nikiteanu made an unusually youthful-sounding Mary. On the podium, Alain Altinoglu led an emotionally powerful performance by the Zürich Philharmonia, as the ensemble is now known.

      - Wagner: Lohengrin – La Scala, Milan
      Conductor: Daniel Barenboim
      Director: Claus Guth
      Cast: Jonas Kaufmann, Annette Dasch, Evelyn Herlitzius, Tómas Tómasson, René Pape, Zeljko Lucic
      Reviewer’s evaluation: “Over-intellectualized” is the critic’s description of Claus Guth’s production, which turned Elsa into the ward or charge of straight-laced, upper middle class 19th century Prussians – i.e., guardian or governess Ortrud and her husband, Telramund. She escaped the repressive atmosphere through fantasies, among them her brother Gottfried and her dream man, Lohengrin. The dream man, though, made his appearance barefoot and curled up like a fetus. At the opera’s end, he was lying on the stage, curled up again, while a uniformed cadet showed up. The implication was that Elsa’s free-spirited flights of fancy were over; she’d be laced into a corset like all other proper and prosperous Victorian women.
      The superb soloists gamely went along with Guth’s concept, and Daniel Barenboim seemed equally unperturbed by either the production or the behavior of the opening night audience (one could hear private box doors still closing during the overture, and the glow of cell phone screens was discernible along with that of the surtitle screens on the seat backs). His interpretation was highly emotional and sensuous, full of warm colors, and the La Scala Orchestra gripped listeners with its passionate playing.

      - Mozart: Die Zauberflöte – The Netherlands Opera, Amsterdam
      Conductor: Marc Albrecht
      Director: Simon McBurney
      Cast: Maximilian Schmidt, Christina Landshamer, Thomas Oliemans, Brindley Sherratt, Iride Martinez, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, Nina Lejderman, Maarten Koningsberger, Ana Maria Labin, Silvia de la Muela, Julia Faylenbogen, et. al.
      Reviewer’s evaluation: Little is said about the singers, but the critic enthuses at length over Simon McBurney’s production. The performance was intended as a communal experience, with the pit elevated so that the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra was placed in the middle of the auditorium. Aside from all the clever stage business, this came close to being a traditional treatment. The two diversions involved the Queen of the Night. The first presented her as a weak woman in a wheelchair – and one could argue that she does refer to her weakness and powerlessness a couple of times. The second came at the opera’s end, when she was reunited with her daughter in a reconciliatory gesture by Sarastro. That sort of magnanimity could make sense in view of the sentiments expressed in “In diesen heil’gen Hallen,” but is rather hard to square with much else that has occurred in the story.
      There were outstanding performances from Iride Martinez (the Queen), Maximilian Schmidt (Tamino), Christina Landshamer (Pamina), and Thomas Oliemans (Papageno). Marc Albrecht led a gripping account of the score.

      - Mozart: Die Zauberflöte – Vlaamse Opera, Antwerp
      Conductor: Tomás Netopil
      Director: David Hermann
      Cast: Yijie Shi, Julie Westendorp, Josef Wagner, Ante Jerkunica, Olga Pudova, Guy de Mey, Mirella Hagen, Georg Gregoryan, Hanne Roos, Tineke Van Ingelgem, Marija Jokovic, Michael J. Scott, et. al.
      Reviewer’s evaluation: In contrast, the critic was so disgusted by David Hermann’s staging, which he felt stripped the opera of its humanity, that he thought audience members would have been better off to close their eyes and simply enjoy the wonderful performance by Maestro Netopil and his excellent soloists. (Among other things, Hermann turned Sarastro into a sect leader whose interest in Pamina was anything but benign, and then had Tamino killed off at the opera’s conclusion.) The best among the fine cast was Olga Pudova’s Queen of the Night, closely followed by Julie Westendorp’s Pamina, Josef Wagner’s Papageno, Ante Jerkunica’s Sarastro, and Yijie Shi’s Tamino.
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      Panorama – Live Performance Reviews in Brief

      - Salvatore Sciarrino: Super flumina – Aachen Theater
      Conductor: Péter Halász
      Director: Ludger Engels/Ric Schachtebeck
      Cast: Anna Radziejewska, Armin Gramer, Hrólfur Saemundsson, Antonella Schiazza, Jorge Escobar
      Reviewer’s evaluation: The title is taken from the Latin translation of the beginning words of Psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon . . . “ But that’s the only Biblical connection to Sciarrino’s one act opera with four scenes. The river in this instance is the stream of commuters coming and going in a railway station, passing by the woman at the center of the story. (“Story” is rather an imprecise term, since there is really no plot here.) Is she homeless? Mentally ill? No one is certain, but in her loneliness and possible madness, she is isolated in the midst of all the crowds.
      In the staging by Ludger Engels and Ric Schachtebeck, the orchestra was placed onstage, while a broad platform extended over the pit and far out into the auditorium to suggest the interior of the railway terminal. Here, people slowly moved past each other, their faces expressionless, until finally the woman separated herself from the group and began “talking” (my quotation marks) to herself with a sort of Sprechgesang. The directors realized that, in the absence of a plot, the drama had to be carried by the music and the visual images they created. The management in Aachen was also wise to bring in Anna Radziejewski, who portrayed the woman in the opera’s 2011 world premiere in Mannheim. Sciarrino tailored the part to her voice, and here she mastered the extremely difficult role with “breathtaking perfection,” according to the reviewer. In her monologue, there were half whispered fragments of sound, tiny clucks, lightning-fast giggling, and droning. Under Péter Halász’s “sovereign” leadership on the podium, the orchestra expertly captured Sciarrino’s lyrical, filigreed sound.

      - Offenbach: Les Contes d’Hoffmann – Bielefeld Theater
      Conductor: Elisa Gogou
      Director: Helen Malkowsky
      Cast: Richard Carlucci, Tuomas Pursio, Melanie Forgeron, Cornelie Isenbürger, Christiane Linke, Sarah Kuffner, et. al.
      Reviewer’s evaluation: Instead of taking the tale of the unlucky-in-love poet at face value, director Helen Malkowsky used the opera to examine the nature of creativity and inspiration. That, and the manner in which she “plausibly” interwove the three episodes get high marks from the magazine’s critic. (Among other things, the Muse became an experienced literary agent who accompanied Hoffmann to a theater canteen where he was giving a reading; Giulietta later surfaced as a canteen hostess.) The fine soloists were all engaged with their characters, but avoided the pitfall of overacting. Particular standouts were Richard Carlucci (Hoffmann), Melanie Forgeron (Muse), Tuomas Pursio (the four villains), and Cornelie Isenbürger (Olympia). In the pit, Elisa Gogou led an elegantly balanced interpretation of the score.

      - Monteverdi: L’Incoronazione di Poppea – Dortmund Theater
      Conductor: Fausto Nardi
      Director: Jens Daniel Herzog
      Cast: Eleonore Marguerre, Christian Sturm/Christoph Strehl, Katharina Peetz, Ileana Mateescu, Christian Sist, Hans-Jürgen Schöopflin, Tamara Weimerich, Julia Amos, Anke Briegel, et. al.
      Reviewer’s evaluation: This is the production where the audience was seated onstage behind the singers, and the orchestra placed in an elevated gallery. It’s also the one where the cast marched in during the prologue clad in their underwear and were finally handed down their costumes from the flies. This critic liked it, even if she questioned the surtitle translation of “mammae” as “tits” (or the German equivalent). She also adds that this sort of coarseness was infrequent. At the performance she attended, tenor Christoph Strehl was ailing and had to mime the role of Nerone onstage while Christian Sturm sang the music from the gallery – and did so very well. There were no weak links in this excellent cast, and Fausto Nardi kept the proceedings in musical flow.

      - Handel: Giulio Cesare in Egitto – Frankfurt Opera
      Conductor: Erik Nielsen
      Director: Johannes Erath
      Cast: Michael Nagy, Brenda Rae, Tanja-Ariane Baumgartner, Paula Murrihy, Sebastian Geyer, Matthias Rexroth, Simon Bailey, Dmitry Egorov
      Reviewer’s evaluation: Before a note was even played, the audience saw a group of young adults, party guests in tow, arriving in their chic loft digs. One of them unwrapped a box, which turned out to contain a severed head. As the astonished group tried to figure out where THAT had come from, the music began and the individuals were transformed into the characters of the opera. The loft pad seemed to become a lens focused on a huge movie screen, and the audience got to spend the next few hours watching a succession of Hollywood clichés, including Cleopatra taking a bubble bath in a claw-footed tub. At the conclusion, there were even rolling credits that listed everyone from the producer (Intendant Bernd Loebe) to casting (Loebe again). It was clever, but in the end, director Johannes Erath seemed more interested in creating an Occasion than about the opera’s content. The musical interpretation left a similar impression, though performance standards were generally high. Best among the soloists were Tanja-Ariane Baumgartner (Cornelia) and Matthias Rexroth (Tolomeo). Brenda Rae was a respectable Cleopatra with spotless coloratura. Michael Nagy sang Caesar with charm and astonishing vocal agility, yet one could sense that his baritone is more at home elsewhere. Under Erik Nielsen’s fluid leadership, the Frankfurt Opera Orchestra sounded very nice and unified, but never seemed to go beyond that. (And I don’t know if the audience ever did learn the origin of that gift-wrapped head!)

      - Verdi: Don Carlo (four act version) – Theater im Revier, Gelsenkirchen
      Conductor: Rasmus Baumann
      Director: Stephan Märki
      Cast: Daniel Magdal, Petra Schmidt, Günter Papendell, Carola Guber, Renatus Mészár, Michael Tews, Dong-Won Seo, et. al.
      Reviewer’s evaluation: Märki’s superficial treatment of the drama didn’t make any points with the critic, and his decision to present the Grand Inquisitor as Christ was totally off the mark. Things weren’t much better on the musical side. Rasmus Baumann’s conducting was pretty much in line with Märki’s staging: nothing bombastic, but nothing especially appealing, either. Petra Schmidt (Elisabetta) was the one standout in the cast, her registers balanced, transitions seamless, cantilenas well-shaped, and her singing finely shaded. Renatus Mészár’s Filippo needed just a bit more vocal authority, but he believably conveyed the despair of the aging, unloved King. Günter Papendell (Rodrigo) and Carola Guber (Eboli) needed time to warm up, and Daniel Magdal’s Carlo consisted of little but full mezzo fortes and cutting fortissimos.

      - Mozart: Cosi fan tutte – Hannover State Opera
      Conductor: Karen Kamensek
      Director: Alexander Charim
      Cast: Dorothea Maria Marx, Monika Walerowicz, Sung-Keun Park, Chrostopher Tonkin, Carmen Fuggiss, Michael Dries
      Reviewer’s evaluation: The star of this performance was in the pit: Maestra Karen Kamensek, who drew a sharp account of the score from the Lower Saxony State Orchestra, and was rewarded with great cheering from the audience at the curtain call. The reviewer didn’t think very much of Alexander Charim’s doll house staging, which hovered between laziness and routine. Finest of the soloists were Carmen Fuggiss as Despina, a “soubrette with a steel core,” who in this card house of emotions “always had an ace up her sleeve,” according to the critic. The other cast members were respectable, and at the curtain, received friendly applause from the audience.

      - Johann Strauss the Younger: Der Zigeunerbaron (The Gypsy Baron) – Klagenfurt City Theater
      Conductor: Marius Burkert
      Director: Sam Brown
      Cast: Mehrzad Montazeri, Stefanie C. Braun, Helena Zubanovich, Richard Wiedl, Sibylla Duffe, Patrick Vogel, Juan Carlos Falcón, et. al.
      Reviewer’s evaluation: To make some of the libretto’s more bellicose passages more palatable to modern audiences, Sam Brown turned the warring factions into residents of Austrian and Spanish vacation camps – though the “Austrian” one reminded the critic more of Butlin’s, which he describes as a working class Club Med in Britain, Brown’s homeland. (The heroine, Saffi, became a cleaning woman there.) It was all great fun, and there was enthusiastic music-making by the orchestra under Marius Burkert and a competent group of soloists. The best of the latter were Mehrzad Montazeri (Barinkay), Sibylla Duffe (Arsena), and Helena Zubanovich (Czipra). With all the fun, Brown may have been making an ironic allusion to Austria’s upcoming referendum on abolishing compulsory military service when he invited the audience to join in singing the chorus, “Hurrah, die Schlacht mitgemacht!” (Hurrah, the battle joined!) After all, he won the 2011 Ring Award for his staging of Die Fledermaus, which set the action in Nazi-era Vienna.

      - Vaughn Williams: The Pilgrim’s Progress – English National Opera, London
      Conductor: Martyn Brabbins
      Director: Yoshi Oida
      Cast: Roland Wood, Benedict Nelson, Mark Richardson, Colin Judson, Timothy Robinson, Ann Murray, et. al.
      Reviewer’s evaluation: When this work premiered at the Royal Opera in 1951, it met with little success. Many admired its beautiful music, but also expressed the opinion that it was more oratorio than opera, too lacking in dramatic potential for the latter. Taking on the work for ENO, director Yoshi Oida set the action in a prison (inventive sets by Tom Schenk) during the First World War. This may have been a reference to the fact that John Bunyan wrote his monumental religious allegory while imprisoned for unauthorized preaching. An odder idea was to have the Pilgrim put to death in the electric chair – a form of execution never used in Britain – only to be resurrected to deliver his Afterward.
      Martyn Brabbins’ “musically circumspect” conducting highlighted the beauty of Vaughn Williams’ partitur, but couldn’t conceal its drawbacks. After a time, the brooding undertone and predominantly slow tempos sounded repetitive – “poison for the dramatic effect,” according to the reviewer. All of the soloists gave committed performances, particularly Benedict Nelson (Evangelist/Watchful) and Ann Murray (Madam By-Ends, Madam Bubble).

      - Verdi: Rigoletto – Bavarian State Opera, Munich
      Conductor: Marco Armiliato
      Director: Árpád Schilling
      Cast: Franco Vassallo, Patricia Petibon, Joseph Calleja, Dimitry Ivashchenko, Nadia Krasteva, et. al.
      Reviewer’s evaluation: The best of this performance was Joseph Calleja’s Duke, termed an “event” by the critic. His timbre has recently darkened and grown, and he successfully captured the young nobleman’s high spirits as well as his imperiousness. Nether Franco Vassallo’s Rigoletto nor Patricia Petibon’s Gilda were on his level. Marco Armiliato’s conducting drew lots of brio – and also lots of indifference and imprecision from the orchestra. Árpád Schilling may have had good intentions when he decided to focus his staging on the generational conflict between Rigoletto and his daughter, rather than on the abuse of power by the Duke and his corrupt court, and Rigoletto’s punishment for his part in it. Unfortunately, too much of what Schilling was trying to achieve was still unclear, unconvincing, and even clichéd.

      - Bizet: Carmen – Opéra Bastille, Paris
      Conductor: Philippe Jordan
      Director: Yves Beaunesne
      Cast: Anna Caterina Antonacci, Nikolai Schukoff, Ludovic Tézier, Genia Kühmeier, Edwin Crossley-Mercer, François Piolino, François Lis, Alexandre Duhamel, Olivia Dorey, Louisa Callinan, et. al.
      Reviewer’s evaluation: Yves Beaunesne’s production was far too conservative, trivial, and clichéd for this critic’s liking. The musical performance had its ups and downs, as well. Carmen’s sex appeal seemed too forced with Anna Caterina Antonacci; beyond that, an unpleasant sharpness and flickering vibrato were creeping into her voice. Nikolai Schukoff (Don José) needed a long time to warm up, but hit his stride with a moving, well-sung Flower Song. Genia Kühmeier was a sterling Micaela, with a warm, supple soprano that she deployed with great musicality; her characterization was also pleasantly free of stereotype. Ludovic Tézier (Escamillo) sang with compact, lustrous tone, but his Toreador aria lacked excitement. The chorus was in surprisingly poor shape, and that’s a major deficit in an opera that contains so many choral numbers. A major asset, however, was Philippe Jordan on the podium. He brought a light touch and some exuberant showmanship to his conducting.

      - Porpora: Polifemo – Schwetzingen Winter Festival
      Conductor: Wolfgang Katschner
      Director: Clara Kalus
      Cast: Haris Adrianos, Terry Wey, Jakob Huppmann, Rinnat Moriah, Tijana Grujic, Irina Simmes
      Reviewer’s evaluation: Porpora wrote the roles of Ulisse and Acis in this opera for two of his star pupils, the castrati Senesino and Farinelli. While he was not the gifted melodist that his great rival, Handel, was, and also lacked Handel’s skill at instrumentation, Porpora did provide his stars with bravura arias containing lavish runs that were among the most impressive of their time.
      It was precisely in the roles of Acis and Ulisse where Schwetzingen had its two strongest singers, the countertenors Terry Wey and Jakob Huppmann, respectively. In his prayer to Jupiter, “Alto Giove,” Wey demonstrated perfect messa di voce, and otherwise dispatched his elaborate arias with virtuosity. Huppmann was on a par with him, as was soprano Rinnat Moriah as Galatea. The other soloists were quite acceptable, and Wolfgang Katschner drew stylish playing from his small orchestra. If only the staging had been up to the level of the music-making. In her defense, it must be noted that Clara Kalus had to step in as a replacement for the ailing original director, Karoline Gruber, just before rehearsals. But she just didn’t seem to be able to do much with Antonio Rolli’s libretto, a fusion of the myths of Ulysses and the Cyclops, and Acis and Galatea.

      - Mozart: Die Zauberflöte – Opéra National du Rhin, Strasbourg
      Conductor: Theodor Guschlbauer
      Director: Mariame Clément
      Cast: Sébastien Droy, Olga Pasichnyk, Paul Armin Edelmann, Bélint Szabó, Susanne Elmark, Adrian Thompson, Gudrun Sidonie Otto, et. al.
      Reviewer’s evaluation: Most of this review is spent describing Mariame Clément’s staging concept, which was certainly out of the ordinary. As the critic explains it, Clément and her longtime collaborator, Julia Hansen (sets and costumes), tried to approach the complexities of this work with their own complex analogies. Whether or not they were successful is difficult to determine. On one hand, the reviewer mentions that the Queen of the Night and Tamino seemed to lack any real characteristics. On the other hand, he calls Clément’s production “exciting” and laments that the musical performance couldn’t keep pace with it. Theodor Guschlbauer’s conducting is described as careful and nuanced, if the tempos were sometimes inclined to fussiness. The Orchestre symphonique de Mulhouse had some limits in concentration and homogeneity, and they were not helped by the opera house’s dry-as-dust acoustics. Guschlbauer did succeed in maintaining excellent balance between pit and stage. The soloists were respectable but not much more, with Paul Armin Edelmann’s powerful Papageno the best of the group.

      - Puccini: La Boheme – Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, Valencia
      Conductor: Riccardo Chailly
      Director: Davide Livermore
      Cast: Gail James, Aquiles Machado, Massimo Cavaletti, Carmen Romeu, Gianluca Boretto, Mattia Olivieri, et. al.
      Reviewer’s evaluation: The best part of this performance was the excellent playing of the Orquestra de la Communitat Valenciana under Maestro Chailly’s seasoned guidance. Davide Livermore’s staging, a co-production with the Opera Company of Philadelphia, was deemed much too tame on account of its failure to explore the human, social issues connected with this story of impoverished young adults. Instead, it seemed to be more of a homage to the Impressionists. There was a reliable group of soloists, led by Gail James as a vocally delicate Mimi, and the convincing Rodolfo of Aquiles Machado (whose timbre did take some getting used to). On the whole, the reviewer seems far more interested in the protests taking place outside the Palau de les Arts than in the opera being performed inside it. Stage technicians, musicians, and relatives of administrative employees were demonstrating against a planned streamlining of cultural organizations under which 40 percent of positions could be eliminated. Flyers (also printed in English) were distributed condemning the management’s “capricious” waste of money. Before the start of the performance, the orchestra members spontaneously played a few measures from the opera’s fourth act and then waved some of the flyers; the audience waved theirs back.

      - Hindemith: Mathis der Maler – Theater an der Wien, Vienna
      Conductor: Bertrand de Billy
      Director: Keith Warner
      Cast: Wolfgang Koch, Kurt Streit, Franz Grundheber, Manuela Uhl, Raymond Very, Katerina Tretyakova, Charles Reid, Martin Snell, Oliver Ringelhahn, Magdalena Anna Hofmann, et. al.
      Reviewer’s evaluation: This was a very fine production, particularly on the musical side. The outstanding cast was led by Wolfgang Koch’s intense, vocally sovereign Mathis, but there were also stellar portrayals from Manuela Uhl (Ursula), Franz Grundheber (Riedinger), and Kurt Streit (Albrecht von Brandenburg). Katerina Tretyakova and Magdalena Anna Hofmann were commendable in the roles of Regina and the Countess, respectively. With the Vienna Symphony, Bertrand de Billy let Hindemith’s harmonies build excitingly. Keith Warner’s staging explored the issues raised in the opera’s libretto without seeming to lecture the audience. However, his reliance on colorful theatrics often veered close to cliché.

      - Richard Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos – Vienna State Opera
      Conductor: Jeffrey Tate
      Director: Sven-Eric Bechtolf
      Cast: Krassimira Stoyanova, Daniela Fally, Stephen Gould, Christine Schäfer, Peter Matic, Jochen Schmeckenbecher, Norbert Ernst, Adam Plachetka, Carlos Osuna, Andreas Hörl, Pavel Kolgatin, Valentina Nafornita, Margarita Grutskova, Olga Bezsmertna
      Reviewer’s evaluation: Nearly the entire first half of the review is devoted to raving about Krassimira Stoyanova: her tremendous talent, her modesty and lack of diva affectations, her underrepresentation on recordings. And her superb Ariadne, which from a vocal standpoint is practically without competition today. She was also dramatically convincing both as the capricious Prima Donna and as the vulnerable, deeply sensitive Ariadne. Christine Schäfer made an impressive State Opera debut as the Composer, though the part seems to lie a little low for her soprano voice. But she captured the character’s anguish as seeing his work dragged in the (figurative) dirt, as well as his awakening erotic interest during the meeting with Zerbinetta. Daniela Fally was a fine Zerbinetta, if she didn’t erase memories of Edita Gruberova in this role. There were also fine performances from Stephen Gould (Tenor/Bacchus) and Jochen Schmeckenbecher (Music Master), and the other cast members were convincing in their roles. Jeffrey Tate led the Staatsoper orchestra in an unostentatious manner, leaving the grand effects to his singers.
      Sven-Etic Bechtolf, who staged the original 1912 version of this opera at last summer’s Salzburg Festival, returned to the familiar 1916 Vienna version here. But that didn’t help what was too often a trivial, laissez-faire treatment of both the prelude and opera segments of the work.
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      Infos (News Briefs)

      - Sir Simon Rattle will not renew his contract with the Berlin Philharmonic when it expires in 2018.

      - Markus Müller will become Intendant of the Mainz State Theater beginning with the 2014-15 season. He succeeds Matthias Fontheim.

      - Conductor Riusuke Numajiri will become General Music Director of the Lübeck Theater at the beginning of the 2013-14 season.

      - Latest episode in the ongoing saga of the Cologne Opera: Regisseur Nicolas Brieger has cancelled his planned production of Der Freischütz in protest over the city council’s reduction of the opera house’s public subsidy.

      - The Opéra national de Paris enjoyed a successful year in 2012. The total number of opera and ballet performances given in the Palais Garnier and Opéra Bastille was up 5.4 percent over the previous year. There was also an 8.5 percent increase in total attendance over 2011, and the house was able to lower the price of individual tickets by €5.

      - The Mannheim Theater is still trying to figure out how to restructure its leadership after the illness of General Intendantin Regula Gerber. Mayor Peter Kurz wanted to employee individual Opera and Playhouse directors, who would alternate their assignments. The municipal legislature gave his proposal a thumbs-down, and its cultural affairs committee told him to come up with a modified plan minus the job rotation.

      - As already mentioned on Opera Lively, Angela and Roberto have parted company.

      - Conductor Mariss Janssons is the recipient of the 2013 International Ernst von Siemens Music Prize.

      - Winners of the Deutsche Oper Berlin’s International Composition Competition, “Neue Szenen” (New Scenes), are the Americans Evan Gardner and Leah Muir, and the German Stefan Johannes Hanke. All of them wrote works set to Christoph Nussbaumeder’s libretto, “Ich werde nicht sterben. In meinem Bett.” (I won’t die. In my bed.) Jury chairman was composer Wolfgang Rihm.

      - As of 1 January, the Semper Opera and Dresden State Playhouse have been combined under the Saxonian State Theater. Both branches maintain their artistic independence, but come under the same administration and share facilities such as workshops and warehouses.

      - Germany’s West Pomeranian Theater in Stralsund and Greifswald, and Poland’s Opera na Zamku in Szczecin (Stettin) have entered into a unique, cross-border partnership. The houses will work together on performances and share productions. They will also share workshops and make joint arrangements for temporary employees.

      - During 2012, the auditorium of the Deutsche Oper Berlin’s house was occupied an average of 79 percent of full capacity over the course of 147 performances. The highest levels of attendance were reached at Helmut Lachenmann’s Das Mädchen mit dem Schwefelhölzern (Little Match Girl) at 99 percent, and Parsifal at 98 percent. At the Berlin State Opera, their temporary digs at the Schiller Theater were filled to an average 88 percent of capacity during 394 performances, which includes 24 guest appearances by the Berlin State Orchestra.

      - In April and May, Berlin’s German History Museum will be presenting a special series of films that examine the cinematographic treatment of Wagner and his music. To be held in the museum’s Armory Cinema, the series will also include musical performances, lectures, and a symposium.

      - This year’s Zürich Festival includes a special program called “Wagner Hothouse” that will focus on the composer’s years in the Swiss metropolis. Among offerings will be the world premiere of Hans Neuenfels’ music theater work, “Richard Wagner: Wie ich Welt wurde” (Richard Wagner: How I became the world).

      - Celebrating birthdays this month are tenor Matti Kastu (70), bass Malcolm King (70), tenor Ryland Davies (70), soprano Edith Mathis (75), bass Rolf Wollrad (75), soprano Johanna Meier (75), and bass-baritone Jef Vermeersch (85).
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      CD/DVD Reviews

      - Antoine Dauvergne: Hercule mourant
      Conductor: Christoph Rousset
      Orchestra: Les Talens Lyriques
      Soloists: Andrew Foster-Williams, Véronique Gens, Emiliano Gonzalez Toro, Edwin Crossley-Mercer, Julie Fuchs, Jaël Azzaretti, Alain Buet, Jennifer Borghi, Romain Champion
      Aparté APO42 (2 CDs)

      - Antoine Dauvergne: La Vénitienne
      Conductor: Guy Van Waas
      Orchestra: Les Agrémens
      Soloists: Katia Vellatez, Chantal Santon, Kareen Durand, Isabelle Cals, Mathias Vidal, Alain Buet
      Ricercar RIC 327 (2 CDs)

      Reviewer’s evaluation: In 18th century France, Dauvergne was an important bridge between the works of Rameau and Mondonvilles, and the Reform operas of Gluck. For his tragédie lyrique, Hercule mourant, he used a Reform libretto by Jean-François Marmontel that dealt with Déjanire’s innocent betrayal and the death of Hercules. The Aparté recording of a concert performance in the Versailles Palace Theater does Dauvergne’s work justice in every sense of the word. Véronique Gens “triumphs” in the role of Déjanire with an inner excitement and a nuanced handling of the text.
      In contrast, La Vénitienne is a cheerfully frivolous romance that borrows from the Italian buffa style, and is a rather awkward mixture of sensitive seriousness and burlesque comedy. In the traditional Underworld scene, it even parodies the form of the tragédie lyrique. As the reviewer notes, to entertain and to deeply move with the same gesture is both original and astonishingly modern. Listening to the performance of the ensemble Les Agrémens under conductor Guy Van Waas is a pleasure – which, unfortunately, can’t be said of all of the soloists. Of the group, Katia Vellatez (Léonore) is the standout, and Kareen Durand draws favorable attention in the minor role of Spinette.

      - Vivica Genaux: “A Tribute to Faustina Bordoni
      Conductor: Andrés Gabetta
      Orchestra: Capella Gabetta
      Arias by Hasse and Handel
      Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 88691944592 (1 CD)
      Reviewer’s evaluation: Genaux gives a virtuoso performance of this music with plenty of coloratura pyrotechnics, and her interpretations are deeply moving. Nonetheless, her technique of seeming to hang onto the sound instead of letting the voice flow freely on the breath remains a matter of taste.

      - Cavalli: Il Giasone
      Conductor: Federico Maria Sardelli
      Director: Mariame Clément
      Soloists: Christophe Dumaux, Katarina Bradic, Robin Johanssen, Emilio Pons, Andrew Ashwin, Filippo Adami, Josef Wagner, Angélique Noldus, Yaniv D’Or
      Dynamic NTSC 33663 (2 DVDs)

      - Cavalli: La Didone
      Conductor: William Christie
      Director: Clément Hervieu-Léger
      Soloists: Anna Bonitatibus, Kresimir Spicer, Xavier Sabata, Maria Streijffert, Katherine Watson, Claire Delbono, Terry Wey, Victor Torres, Valerio Contaldo, Tehila Nini Goldstein, Mariana Rewerski, Mathias Vidal
      Opus Arte OA 1080 D (1 DVD)

      Reviewer’s evaluation: Of these videos of two of Cavalli’s operas, La Didone has the clear advantage. In addition to William Christie and his superb Les Arts Florissants ensemble, this performance has the benefit of excellent singers with luxurious, full voices and clearly differentiated characters. By contrast, the performance of Il Giasone under Federico Maria Sardelli has singers who sound anemic as well as coarse and even untidy, with the notable exception of Filippo Adami in the role of Demo. Katarina Bradic is a noble, but one-dimensional Medea. The reviewer even prefers Clément Hervieu-Léger’s staging of La Didone to Mariame Clément’s production of Il Giasone.

      - Ann Hallenberg: “Arias for Marietta Marcolini
      Conductor: Fabio Biondi
      Orchestra: Stavanger Symphony Orchestra
      Arias by Rossini, Mayr, Paër, Weigl, Mosca, and Coccia
      With Brigitte Christensen, Siri Karoline Thornhill (sopranos), Sofie Almroth (mezzo soprano), Marius Roth Christensen, Frederik Akselberg (tenors), Johannes Weisser, and Halvor F. Melien (basses)
      Naïve V5309 (1 CD)
      Reviewer’s evaluation: No one knows for certain when she was born (probably 1780) or when she died, but what is known about the contralto Maria (Marietta) Marcolini is that, in 1811, she became the mistress and muse of the young Rossini. Among the roles the composer wrote for her was Isabella in L’Italiana in Algeri. Swedish mezzo Ann Hallenberg, expertly accompanied by the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra, sings this selection of music by Rossini and his contemporaries with great skill and taste.

      - Andreas Scholl: “Wanderer
      With Tamar Halperin (pianist)
      Lieder by Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, and Brahms
      Decca 4784696 (1 CD)
      Reviewer’s evaluation: One usually doesn’t associate countertenors with Lieder – possibly because the composers of art songs were reacting against what they saw as the artificiality of Baroque opera, which is the greatest portion of a countertenor’s repertoire. And previous attempts by countertenors to record Lieder did not turn out well. Andreas Scholl’s effort, however, turns out very well. His recital of selected songs shows a perfect balance between intuition and stylistic awareness, perfect breath control, and expression that is closely linked to the text. He gets to the heart of these miniatures, loses himself in them. In Schubert’s “Tod und das Mädchen” (Death and the Maiden), he even uses his baritone voice to describe Death’s approach. A highly recommended recording.

      - Rossini: Demetrio e Polibio
      Conductor: Corrando Rovaris
      Director: Davide Livermore
      Soloists: Yijie Shi, Mirco Palazzi, Maria José Moreno, Victoria Zaytseva
      Arthaus Musik 101 647 (1 DVD)
      Reviewer’s evaluation: Some arias and duets written by the 17 year-old Rossini for his teacher, the tenor Mombelli, who had his own opera troupe, later became Demetrio e Polibio, and was premiered in Venice in 1812. There is some suggestion that Mombelli himself had a hand in the work; one certainly hears influences of Haydn and Mozart, but also Rossini’s own unmistakable style. Essentially a variant of the Romeo and Juliet story, this opera has little theatrical potential. In this performance from the Rossini Festival in Pesaro, director Davide Livermore decided to turn it into a ghost story, in which the spirits of Mombelli and his two daughters (who were members of his opera troupe) take over a theater after a performance and stage their own version of the old opera. The countless mirror effects, magic tricks, and other stage business keep the viewer’s eye busy and divert attention from both the cardboard Seria characters and Livermore’s static, conventional production. Musically, the performance is sound but unexciting. The young singers in this cast don’t yet have the polish or skill of experienced Rossini interpreters. One hears that especially with the bass, Mirco Palazzi (Polibio), whose voice sounds too youthful for this father figure, and whose technique and characterization are way behind such predecessors as Samuel Ramey and Simone Alaimo. Tenor Yijie Shi (Demetrio) has a little more bite in his timbre, and the two women, Maria José Moreno (Lisinga) and Victoria Zaytseva (Siveno) are both charming. Corrado Rovaris leads the Orchestra Sinfonica G. Rossini in a stylish performance.

      - Rossini: La scala di seta
      Conductor: Claudio Scimone
      Director: Damiano Michieletto
      Soloists: Daniele Zanfardino, Olga Peretyatko, Anna Malavasi, José Manuel Zapata, Carlo Lepore, Paolo Bordogna
      Opus Arte/Naxos OA 1085 D (1 DVD)
      Reviewer’s evaluation: This is another production from Pesaro, and Regisseur Damiano Michieletto not only updates the action from the 18th to the 21st century, but gets in some modern “product placement” (my quotation marks) as well. The designer digs in which the protagonists live are fitted out with the latest and greatest, including a kitchen by Scavolini – a company that just happens to be a longtime sponsor of the Festival. Many clever touches, but also many conventional theatrics, keep things moving. The superlative musical performance is led by veteran conductor Claudio Scimone, with the Orchestra Haydn di Bolzano e Trenta and an excellent group of soloists. The reviewer does suggest, however, that it’s rather improbable that plus-size tenor José Manuel Zapata, in the role of the husband, Dorvil, would ever be able to scale a silken ladder up to his wife’s bedroom.

      - Rossini: Sigismondo
      Conductor: Michele Marioti
      Director: Damiano Michieletto
      Soloists: Daniela Barcellona, Olga Peretyatko, Antonino Siragusa, Andrea Concetti, Manuela Bisceglie, Enea Scala
      Arthaus Musik 101 648 (2 DVDs)
      Reviewer’s evaluation: This is yet another production from Pesaro. The plot of Sigismondo is pretty far-fetched (which may explain why this isn’t one of Rossini’s better-known operas). King Sigismondo has his wife executed for supposed infidelity, then is tortured by guilt and fears of madness that are only made worse when he encounters her look-alike, who is, of course, his supposedly-dead Queen who was saved and hidden by a fatherly friend. Believing audiences today are unlikely to find such a tale credible, Damiano Michieletto set the story in a mental institution. Here, the pantomimic acting of the “patients” is oppressive, but it meaningfully breaks up the static quality of the bravura arias and concertati. The reviewer notes that this is the rare case of a staging that is more convincing than the original libretto.
      Among the cast members, Daniela Barcellona (Sigismondo) is a credible case study of mental confusion and physical deterioration. As the wronged wife, Aldimira, Olga Peretyatko has the greatest share of the vocal showpieces, and she makes a charismatic, mysterious heroine. Antonino Siragusa sings the villain (and here, a sex offender) Ladislao with cutting sharpness. Michele Marioti’s interpretation of the score shines new light on Rossini as a musical dramatist.

      - Schubert: Die Winterreise
      Jochen Kupfer (baritone), Susanne Giesa (pianist)
      Meisterklang Records WRR03323 (1 CD)
      Reviewer’s evaluation: This recording, made in 2002, has just now been released. Intentionally or not, Kupfer follows the advice of fellow baritone and Schubert interpreter Matthias Goerne, and approaches this cycle with a measure of detachment rather than wallowing in its bleak moods. In Goerne’s view, an overabundance of false emotion can make Schubert’s music sound conventional and even trivial. Kupfer goes easy on the “cutting tone” referred to by Schubert’s friend, Johann Mayrhofer, and relies more on a beautiful, cultivated sound. It’s a valid interpretation, and Kupfer has a sensitive partner in pianist Susanne Giesa.

      - Verdi: “Flieg, Gedanke. Verdi auf Deutsch” (Fly, Thoughts. Verdi in German)
      With Rudolf Schock, Nicolai Gedda, Josef Metternich, Leonie Rysanek, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Gottlob Frick, Edda Moser, Elisabeth Grümmer, Erika Köth, et. al.
      EMI 50999 4 16662 27 (10 CDs)
      My note: This compilation of complete performances and excerpts of 1950s-1960s German-language recordings of Verdi’s operas will probably have little interest, except among collectors, outside of the German-speaking countries.

      - James Rutherford: “Most Grand to Die
      With Eugene Asti (pianist)
      Songs by George Butterworth, Ivor Gurney, and Ralph Vaughn Williams
      Bis SACD-1060 (1 CD)
      Reviewer’s evaluation: This is a fine recording by baritone James Rutherford of songs by three composers all touched in some way by World War I. Rutherford sings this material with great sensitivity, and has a subtle accompanist in Eugene Asti.

      - Samir Odeh-Tamimi: Madjnun II; Shira Shir; Garten der Erkenntnis (Garden of Knowledge); Gdadroja; and other works
      Performers: Jeramias Schwarzer (recorder), West German Radio Chorus; Romain Bischoff (baritone), Jonathan Stockhammer (conductor), Radio Symphony Orchestra Berlin; New Vocal Soloists Stuttgart, Andrew Digby and Thomas Wagner (trombones), Netherlands Vocal Laboratory, Peter Eötvös (conductor), Radio Kamerfilharmonie Hilverson
      Wego WER 65822 (1 CD)
      Reviewer’s evaluation: These are very cutting-edge works by the young avant-garde composer Samir Odeh-Tamimi, a Palestinian born in Tel Aviv and now living in Berlin. They reflect equally diverse influences in music and source material, the latter including Mideastern tales as well as a Yiddish epic by the political composer Jizchak Katzenelson, killed at Auschwitz in 1944.

      - Kris Defoort: The Woman Who Walked Into Doors
      Conductor: Etienne Siebens
      Orchestra: Prometheus Ensemble
      Performers: Claron McFadden (soprano), Jacqueline Blom (actor), Dreamtime
      Fuga Libera FUG709 (1 CD)
      Reviewer’s evaluation: This “opera for soprano, actress, and video screen” by Dutch composer Kris Defoort (with Guy Cassiers and Marianne Van Kerkhoven) is another piece for adventurous listeners. Based on a novel by Irish author Roddy Doyle, it tells the story of 39 year-old Paula Spencer, beginning with the scene in which she is informed that her criminal husband has been shot by police. From then n, one sees (or, in this case, hears) the stations of her life of excess passing by as though in a film. Claron McFadden and Jacqueline Blom tell the tale with “dry humor, sarcastic bite, and a sure instinct for the tragedy of the protagonist,” according to the reviewer. However, in the absence of a visual component in this recording, he stresses that it’s crucial to understanding the work for the listener to follow along with the libretto.

      - Friedrich Schenker/Noldi Alder: Mord auf dem Säntis (Murder on the Säntis)
      Conductor: Arne Willimczik
      Orchestra: Southwest German Philharmonic, Konstanz
      Soloists: Jeannine Herzel, Johannes Schwärsky, Yikun Chung, et. al.
      Duophon Classics 11053 (1 CD)
      Reviewer’s evaluation: Friedrich Schenker, once among East Germany’s most significant avant-garde composers, developed a rather surprising fondness for Alpine folk music. Together with Swiss folklorist Noldi Alder, he wrote a murder mystery opera set on a 2,500 meter peak in the Alpenzeller region. The work had its world premiere in 2011 at the Konstanz Theater. The music, a curious mixture of Alphorn calls, yodeling, dodecaphony, and dissonance, is of undeniable quality. This is a worthy performance, thanks to the committed involvement of the six young soloists and 10-member instrumental ensemble.

      - Simon Laks: L’Hirondelle inattendue; Karol Rathaus: Le Lion amoureux
      Conductor: Lakasz Borowicz
      Orchestra: Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra
      Soloists: Kévin Amiel, Patrick Agard, Eduarda Melo, Sandrine Eyglier, Ute Gfrerer, et. al.
      EDA 35 (1 CD)
      Reviewer’s evaluation: The critic describes Laks’ Opéra bouffe as “probably the craziest one-acter in music history.” In the story, a journalist and his pilot are forced to crash-land and soon find themselves surrounded by animals. As explained by a bird who identifies itself as the dove from Noah’s Ark, they’ve reached that part of Paradise reserved for famous critters. There’s the snake from the Garden of Eden, Jonah’s whale, the Hound of the Baskervilles, the geese from the Capitol, Schubert’s trout, etc. Soon, another visitor shows up, a distraught, scruffy bird/woman who identifies herself as the “suburban swallow” and who has been wounded. The animals appoint an investigative committee, and while the journalist covers the tribunal’s proceedings, the pilot repairs their aircraft. Things get even crazier from there. A Voice From Heaven announces that a second suburban swallow has arrived at the gates of the human part of Paradise. Confusion reigns as the animals try to sort out the two swallows and the possibility of multiple Paradises. Eventually, the journalist announces that he’s solved the mystery; the “suburban swallow” is L’Hirondelle du Faubourg, a popular French chanson whose fame will survive that of all humans and animals through eternity.
      The composer survived Auschwitz, and his melodies as well as the plot are symbolic of the immortality of music. Written for nine soloists, chorus, and a “giant” orchestra, the work employs all of the operatic arts and, at times, parodies them (i.e., the Celestial Voice). Tamino plays a few measures on his flute, and there are even bits of Gershwin and Messiaen to be heard in the animals’ voices. This recording of a concert performance by Warsaw’s Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Lukasz Borowicz marvelously conveys the opera’s strange, effervescent humor.
      Karol Rathaus’ suite, “Le Lion amoureux,” is not reviewed.

      Book Reviews

      As usual, summaries of the reviews of German language publications are not included, since these materials will be only of interest to those who can read German.

      - Gabriele Gaiser-Reich: “Gustav Walter, 1834-1910. Wiener Hofsänger und Liederfürst.”
      Hans Schneider, Tutzing – 2011
      €48.00

      - Robert H. Pflanzl: “Grüss Gott, Herr Kammersänger! Der Salzburger Heinrich Pflanzl in der Welt der Oper.”
      Böhlau Verlag, Vienna-Cologne-Weimar – 2012
      €24.90

      - Gerd Uecker: “Traumberuf Opernsänger
      Henschel, Leipzig – 2012
      €16.90

      - Rudolf Piernay: “Klassisches Gesang als Beruf und Berufung
      Bärenreiter/Henschel, Kassel and Leipzig – 2012
      €16.95

      - Michael Wessel: “Üben, Proben, Karriere
      Bärenreiter, Kassel – 2012
      €16.95

      - Claudia Spahn: “Lampenfieber. Handbuch für den erfolgsreichen Auftritt
      Henschel, Leipzig – 2012
      €16.90


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