Posts Tagged ‘Barbara Frittoli’

Loss, Lust and Repentance at the DSO

Friday, April 27th, 2012

By Rebecca Schmid

Of Berlin’s seven major orchestras, the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester (DSO) is beloved among connoisseurs for its innovative programming. For the past five seasons, the orchestra has offered “Casual Concerts” concluding with a DJ act in the foyer of the Philharmonie, as initiated by former Music Director Ingo Metzmacher. In what the Berliner Zeitung is calling one of the most important concerts of the season, the series most recently featured Hans Graf, principal conductor of the Houston Symphony, in a self-devised triptych that traveled through Puccini’s Suor Angelica, Hindemith’s Sancta Susanna, and Skryabin’s Le poème de l’extase. The program was also performed as a straight concert on April 22, which I had the opportunity to attend.

Hindemith’s one-acter about the forbidden desires of a nun is, according to a recent publication issued by the Hindemith Foundation, one of the biggest scandals in twentieth-century music history. The conductor Fritz Busch refused to perform it in 1921 as part of a Puccini-inspired triptych that begins with Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen and ends with Das Nusch-Nuschi. When Sancta Susanna premiered in Frankfurt the following year, religious and conservative cultural institutions broke out into protest. While the Catholic Women’s League was organizing “atonement devotions” during Holy Week, Theodor Adorno praised Sancta Susanna as not only “the best of the three pieces” but the most mature stage work Hindemith ever wrote: “the thematic pressure of the orchestral flow and widely arching vocal melodies, the sultriness of the spring night and the vehemence of the catastrophe from this single, elemental force.”

The 25-minute work based on poetry by August Stramm has enjoyed something of a renaissance this season, with a full staging at the Opéra Lyon in January and, as seen with the DSO, a well-conceived semi-staging. Graf positioned the singers in front of himself and the orchestra, using screens on which they were able to follow his direction. The concert hall was otherwise darkened, with individual lights for the musicians to follow their scores. Melanie Diener inhabited the title role with fearless dramatic force, ripping of her black cape lustily when she declares in a climactic moment to the cautioning Sister Clementia (Lioba Braun), “ich bin schön” (‘I am beautiful’). Other parts of the plotline were left to the audience’s imagination—such as the moment when Susanna rips the loin cloth of the crucifix and the apparition of a spider (a symbol of repressed female sexuality) that crawls across the altar, only to end up in the protagonist’s hair. This must be a challenging aspect even in full stagings, although Hindemith’s xylophone motive makes it perfectly clear when the creature appears.

Graf led the DSO in a powerful account of Hindemith’s score. The vocal lines are initially set to eerily sparse textures, which were kept taut and hushed. The agonized chords representing the convent’s repression surged with raw force—as Adorno noted, the vivid landscape of anger, lust and frustration reveals Hindemith at his most expressive powers. Hindemith also adopts impressionist touches, such as the sensuous melodies of a flute that hovers over trembling strings, yet in the end the orchestra repents grudgingly. The work thus functioned perfectly as a kind of purgatory scene following Suor Angelica, in which the title character drinks poison after discovering that her illegitimate son has died of a fever. Juxtaposed with Hindemith, the modernist features of Puccini’s score also emerged more clearly, such as when Suor Angelica declares “parlate mi di lui” (‘tell me about him’), setting the orchestra in unison through a jagged, furious descending motive.

Barbara Frittoli was slated to sing the title role, but health reasons forced her to cancel at the last minute. Fortunately, another Italian soprano, Maria Luigia Borsi rose to the occasion admirably with lush bel canto singing that is rare to hear in Berlin. “Senza Mamma” was quietly devastating, with the orchestra already providing glimpses into the white light of heaven. While the DSO’s strings could have been warmer throughout the score, Graf sculpted Puccini’s phrasing with depth and conviction. The semi-staging worked well, with the nuns celibately donning white, roped gowns. Braun made a stand-out performance as the frigid princess, Angelica’s aunt, who convinces her to sign off her inheritance. The American soprano Heidi Stober gave a dynamic performance as Suor Genovieffa despite some less-than-ideal diction; Jana Kurucová (La suora zelatrice) and Ewa Wolak (La maestra della novizie) impressed with their rich timbre.

Le poème de l’extase concluded the program with opulent orchestration and heaving melodies, a refreshing embrace of sensual indulgence afer the harrowing experience of Sancta Susanna. Above the shimmering strings and colorful motivic development, the trumpets herald a new realm beyond the earthly, an explosion of sound which Skryabin declared in 1905 would be “an enormous festival.” Graf led the DSO with tremendous control, steering through the contours of this unpredictably episodic score with the same dramatic sensitivity he brought to the previous one-acters. The audience was left raptured, if not emotionally spent, by this musical journey—concerts like this make it clear how the DSO is able to hold its own even with the Berlin Philharmonic in town, and how spoiled those living here are for variety.

Stay tuned for a review of the Berlin Philharmonic under Dudamel featuring Leonidas Kavakos in Korngold’s Violin Concerto (not the Golijov world premiere that was originally slated, but who’s complaining)