The Barber of Frankfurt

Pride of place must surely be given to the meticulously modulated conducting
by Jonathon Darlington, who coaxed highly detailed and rapturous playing from
the pit. The overall momentum of the piece was beautifully paced, and the
surging, churning orchestral climaxes were beautifully judged and wrenching in
their impact. The bravura playing elicited by Maestro Darlington is all the
more remarkable considering the somewhat dry acoustic of the house itself. The
sensitive solo passages were also instrumental (pun intended) in partnering the
singers and aiding them in crafting three-dimensional characterizations. And
what a splendid group of vocalists they were!

Company member Jenny Carlstedt was absolutely lovely as the wronged niece
Erika, deploying her well-schooled lyric mezzo with great musical and dramatic
intelligence. Her melting rendition of “Must the Winter Come So Soon” early
on in the piece set the bar very high and established the underlying melancholy
that informs the entire work.

Maria Callas, having backed out of title role at the Metropolitan premiËre
(to be replaced by Eleanor Steber) sniffed something to the effect that “the
opera should be called ‘Erika’.” And, indeed, the role is arguably the
only wholly sympathetic character in an environment peopled by the
opportunistic and the deluded. Ms. Carlstedt wrung every ounce of sympathy and
pathos out of the role and the audience received her with unbridled enthusiasm
at curtain call.

While Ms. Carlstedt may not have a large voice, it is so cleanly and clearly
produced that she managed to not only float easily on the orchestral textures,
but also ride every instrumental wave. She also has a superb sense of line and
dramatic intent, and embodied a meaningful, simmering subtext that underscored
Erika’s emotional roller coaster ride. From impressionable, naÔve youth to
cool, resigned maturity, Jenny took us on a riveting journey.

Charlotta Larsson as Vanessa was every inch the still glamorous, desperate
dreamer, awaiting the return of her paramour (revealed as deceased), only to be
confronted with his gold-digging son. Ms. Larsson has everything required for
the role, except perhaps stature. The diminutive diva was the shortest person
on stage, and her beautiful appearance seemed not much older than her niece.
Still, the soprano dominated her every scene with a ripe, full-bodied
instrument that had ample fire power and a gleaming presence as it soared above
the staff. Charlotta not only spit out Vanessa’s many petulant recriminations
with sassy abandon, but she successfully scaled back her volume and modulated
her delivery to offer persuasive limpid singing in such passages as the
memorable duet (”Love has a bitter core”).

Kurt Streit cut a good figure, if arguably just a bit (but only a bit)
mature as Anatol. He is, of course, a noted Mozartian and it was in the
parlando passages and more measured lyric outpourings that his pleasing tenor
scored the best, which is to say exceedingly well, indeed. He has a secure
technique and knows at all times how to channel his resources. In the
enraptured high outbursts in the love duet, Mr. Streit chose to narrow and
point the tone to provide carrying power, sacrificing some tonal beauty and
spin, however, it has to be said that he made his effect. This was an assured
performance from a seasoned veteran who knows his way around a stage. I do
suggest that Kurt might tone down a bit of the faux-youthful
‘hail-fellow-well-met’ demeanor that he occasionally affects, since it has
the unintended result of making Anatol appear somewhat ‘simple.’

Dietrich Volle, another company treasure, had a very good evening as the Old
Doctor. His solid singing was always a pleasure and his sustained climactic
high note in “Under the Willow Tree” was a force of nature: powerful,
sustained, and buzzing with virile tone. Mr. Volle also managed to invest the
part with sufficient self-effacing humor that it took away some of the
self-pitying edge that can creep in. He was hampered a bit in his otherwise
admirable undertaking by his accented English. In fact, of the entire cast only
Mr. Streit displayed consistent, idiomatic pronunciation. I am not so terribly
bothered by that except to wonder if such inaccuracy would be so blithely
tolerated from international singers in German, Italian or French

Helena Doese has a long history of notable successes with Frankfurt and the
company now loyally signs her on for suitable character roles like the Old
Baroness. Ms. Doese is another old pro who knows how to sustain a character and
communicate truthfully and directly. It would be foolish to pretend that the
voice is what it once was. The sheen and richness have largely been replaced by
craft and cunning. But Helena manages to invest the vengeful caricature of a
part with a degree of humanity which is no small feat. And although her voice
is somewhat diffuse now, especially in the lower reaches, she nonetheless
negotiates the vocal demands with pointed meaning.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was that young Bjˆrn B¸rger could make such a
memorable turn out of the throw-away part of the servant Nicholas. With his few
lines, Mr. B¸rger showed off a substantial, warm baritone. And his charismatic
stage presence was put to good use with the briefest of scenes in which he dons
a lady party guest’s fur (as he sings lovingly about it) and has a Marilyn
Monroe girly moment, enjoying it perhaps just a bit too much. Inspired. Bjˆrn
not only made the most of every opportunity, but left us wanting more, a mark
of an artist of great promise. Michael Clark’s chorus was well-tutored and
enlivened the party scene.

I am not sure which I liked more: Julia M¸er’s stunning costumes, or
Julia M¸er’s stunning scenery. From Erika’s youthful polka-dotted day
dress, to Vanessa’s outdoor play pants outfit to Anatol’s sweater vest to
the sumptuous party gowns that seemed straight off a fashion runway, the attire
was uniformly well-considered, inventive, and appropriate. For the set, Ms.
M¸er gave us an austere, moody environment. Stage right was filled with a
large white drawing room with a main entrance in the right wall, a set of
double doors upstage that opened to a warmer looking ballroom, and a large high
spiral staircase left of center that seemed to reach to the heavens. A black
grand piano was down center, mirrors were covered (as the script requires) and
a plethora of pictures were hung with their faces to the wall.

Complementing this is a huge ice floe, filling stage left and threatening to
break up even further and continue infringing on the domestic scene. This is a
telling bit of artistry, the cracking icy surface mirrored in the characters’
ids and the whole effect brilliantly suggesting the isolation, physical and
emotional, of the players. There were also several breath-taking effects, such
as having Erika, at the end of Act One, taking down a picture and throwing it
aside in disgust, and then having all the rest of the paintings suddenly fall
off the wall to the floor to her (and our) astonishment. Having established
that Erika “plays” the piano, after her miscarriage, she finished that
scene in an Ingmar Bergman-like moment, by opening the lid and climbing into
it, pulling it closed like a coffin. Chilling. As a bonus, Olaf Winter’s
winning lighting design was another real asset to the total artistic
collaboration of this production which originated at, and is shared with Malmˆ

It would be difficult to over-praise the contribution of director Katharina
Thoma, for she has created a commendable sense of ensemble with her performers,
and has fostered a focused unity of vision that is a joy to behold. From the
moment the curtain rises, we know who these people are, and we are engaged by
their needs. The blocking was meaningful, and at times much more. Witness the
clever staging of Vanessa’s “Do Not Utter a Word.” The character cannot
bear to look at her Prodigal Suitor, and to manage this believably Ms. Thoma
positions Vanessa downstage of the entrance door that Anatol opens, allowing it
to provide a natural separation with him upstage of it and her downstage.

Too, she has mysterious goings-on happening on the ice floes with character
doubles. A youthful ‘Anatol’ sits on a shard of ice, brooding and smoking
on occasion. Later, he discovers ‘Erika’ in the ravine as the plot narrates
it. The off-stage church choir is a gathering assembled on the ice, for what? A
funeral? A wedding? A fish boil? No matter, the imagery allows us to speculate,
and without distracting us it adds layers to what could otherwise be a pretty
straight-forward, and let’s face it, uninteresting story. Brava Katharina.

Frankfurt has assuredly made a compelling case that if “Vanessa” is
treated to an apt and imaginative staging, wonderfully sung and resplendently
played, well, there is life in the old girl yet.

James Sohre


Vanessa: Charlotta Larsson; Erika: Jenny Carlstedt; Old Baroness: Helena
Dˆse; Anatol: Kurt Streit; Old Doctor: Dietrich Volle; Nicholas: Bjˆrn
B¸rger; Conductor: Jonathon Darlington; Director: Katharina Thoma; Set and
Costume Design: Julia M¸er; Lighting Design: Olaf Winter; Chorus Master:
Michael Clark

Click here for a photo gallery of this production.

product_title=The Barber of Frankfurt
product_by=A review by James Sohre