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Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Opera: singing

I have started writing in the typical way that theatre and opera reviews tend to be written: by discussing aspects of production, aspects of the director’s ideas, or even concept. Actors or singers feature last in reviews, and tend to get rather brief mentions, often with rather vague words to assess their achievements—more specific for negative criticism: we are good at pinpointing faults in precise terms, and less specific, more vague, for praise. I discussed this phenomenon in the context of theatre with Per Brask and Harry Youtt (2013: 77-102). For opera, describing the singers’ voices is particularly difficult. Based on an analysis of critics’ writings about Wagnerian tenors, I found

a range of suitable categories in which to place descriptions of singing in opera. Critics can relate the singing they write about to singing that they consider well-known to their readers or listeners, in comparison with other roles or other singers. Technique comprises diction and phrasing, as well as accuracy of hitting the right notes, control of the singing, and that implies control of breathing, security and projection. Energy and persistence are related to this. With all of these, the singer has to make an effort, but the better the singer, the less of that effort will be obvious to the audience. Singers will be judged by the way they are able to convey the character’s emotions not only in their acting on stage, but through their voices. Sometimes critics will relate singer’s physical qualities to their singing. The kinds of sound the singer emits find a wide range of depictions, with comparisons or metaphors related to the music theory, to the senses, and to animate or inanimate objects. In the context of music theory, the sounds of voices are related to the Fach, (such as lyric or dramatic), to the voice range (for example, a tenor who sounds baritonal), or epoch or style in the history of music (such as bel canto). In the context of inanimate objects, singing can be described as wooden, melting, or metallic. In the context of the senses, the visual sense dominates with terms from colour, light and width (golden, siver; dark, bright, shiny; lissom, slim). The sense of touch appears in the context of singing described as smooth or rough, or velvety, or the metaphorical use of temperature, such as warmth. The sense of taste comes in through references to flavour, such as “sweet”. The sense of hearing is represented by terms such as “resonant” and “ringing”, or references to “clarion”, or musical instruments such as trumpet, and fanfare. (2014: 58-59)

What can we expect of the singing of Wagner at one of the many municipal theatres in Germany, Theater Bremen, and Covent Garden? Many of the singers in Bremen are at early stages of their careers: their membership in the Bremen company is their first or second such permanent contract, following years of training and occasional guest appearances. Some of them may be destined for more prestigious opera houses, in Germany and beyond. For some, the size of the Bremen stage and auditorium represents the best conditions for their voice: it may well be very beautiful in that context, but would be too small for larger spaces. Often, prestige goes hand in hand with stage and auditorium size. As a result, many fine singers are underrated internationally: their voices may be more musical and beautiful than those of the star singers, but the size of those voices is just not suitable for the large opera houses that define (and that can afford) the stars. 

 Nadine Lehner (Kundry), Chris Lysack (Parsifal), andPatrick Zielke (Gurnemanz). 
A few examples from the Bremen Parsifal: Patrick Zielke has a very strong, rich and healthy bass voice, ideally suited to the challenging part of Gurnemanz. He was able comfortably to be heard above, or through, the full orchestra when necessary, but was also able to provide piano nuances of some of the calmer passages of Gurnemanz’s narration. There was as yet not too much in between distinct singing in either forte or piano.

NadineLehner as Kundry

Nadine Lehner as Kundry has an impressive repertory of roles across the mezzo-soprano and soprano range. She has been in the Bremen company since 2004, and is expanding her work with guest appearances in smaller roles in larger houses, including Deutsche Oper Berlin. Her singing of Kundry was very nuanced indeed, rich in tone across the whole range composed for the part.
Gwyn Hughes Jones as Walther

Very interesting in the context of Wagner operas are the achievements of the tenors. Chris Lysack was Parsifal in Bremen, Gwyn Hughes Jones was Walther in London. Hughes Jones achieved the kind of glorious, open-voiced singing one expects from Covent Garden in his prize song, at the end of the evening. I hope he will be able to develop the voice even further, to sustain that sound throughout. 

Chris Lysack as Parsifal
Lysack was good for the size of the Bremen theatre, and previous productions he was involved in took place in venues of similar size. At best, the voice was free and ringing. However, there were also passages that sounded more strained: here, more, or different kind of support would be useful in terms of technique.  

All of the Bremen singers managed to achieve a high level of clarity in their articulation of the German libretto—independent of whether their native language is German or not. This was not the case for the Covent Garden Meistersinger, where only Bryn Terfel’s words were clearly comprehensible all the time, despite the involvement, according to the credits, of a German language coach. If Bremen can achieve such clarity, Covent Garden should be able as well, especially within the time frame of a new production as this one, compared with less time available to mount a revival of a production already in the repertory. The Bremen chorus sang more in unison than that in London. The prompt in Bremen gave the singers most of their lines, very audibly in the front row. I remember some of this excessive prompting from Wagner productions I saw in Düsseldorf in the 1980s, so perhaps this is more common in the German system, but it is distracting and one would expect singers across the world to be confident in learning their lines as part of their profession.

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