24 Oct 2007
Der Freischütz at Oper Köln
Do you remember a moment when a piece, new to you, so engaged you that you immediately wanted to know more. . .or all about it?
Opera San Jose has capped a wholly winning season with an emotionally engaging, thrillingly sung, enticingly fresh rendition of Puccini’s immortal masterpiece La bohème.
On Saturday evening April 22, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at the Civic Theater. Director Marta Domingo updated the production from the constrictions of the nineteenth century to the freedom of the nineteen twenties. Violetta’s fellow courtesans and their dates wore fascinating outfits and, at one point, danced the Charleston to what looked like a jazz combo playing Verdi’s score.
Thomas Adès’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, is a dizzying, sometimes frightening, palimpsest of texts (literary and cinematic) and music, in which ceaseless repetitions of the past - inexact, ever varying, but inescapably compulsive - stultify the present and deny progress into the future. Paradoxically, there is endless movement within a constricting stasis. The essential elements collide in a surreal Sartrean dystopia: beasts of the earth (live sheep and a simulacra of a bear) roam, a disembodied hand floats through the air, water spouts from the floor and a burning cello provides the flames upon which to roast the sacrificial lambs. No wonder that when the elderly Doctor tries to restore order through scientific rationalism he is told, “We don't want reason! We want to get out of here!”
Is A Dog’s Heart even an opera? It is sung by opera singers to live music. Alexander Raskatov’s score, however, is secondary to the incredible stage visuals. Whatever it is, actor/director Simon McBurney’s first stab at opera is fantastic theatre. Its revival at Dutch National Opera, where it premiered in 2010, is hugely welcome.
I kept hearing from knowledgeable opera fanatics that the Israeli Opera (IO) in Tel Aviv was a surprising sure bet. So I made my way to the Homeland to hear how supposedly great the quality of opera was. And man, I was in for treat.
At Phoenix’s Symphony Hall on Friday evening April 7, Arizona Opera offered its final presentation of the 2016-2017 season, Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola). The stars of the show were Daniela Mack as Cinderella, called Angelina in the opera, and Alek Shrader as Don Ramiro. Actually, Mack and Shrader are married couple who met singing these same roles at San Francisco Opera.
On Saturday evening April 1, 2017, Placido Domingo and Los Angeles Opera celebrated their tenth year of training young opera artists in the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Program. From the singing I heard, they definitely have something of which to be proud.
The town’s name itself “Baden-Baden” (named after Count Baden) sounds already enticing. Built against the old railway station, its Festspielhaus programs the biggest stars in opera for Germany’s largest auditorium. A Mecca for music lovers, this festival house doesn’t have its own ensemble, but through its generous sponsoring brings the great productions to the dreamy idylle.
The Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden pretty much programs only big stars. A prime example was the Fall Festival this season. Grigory Sokolov opened with a piano recital, which I did not attend. I came for Cecilia Bartoli in Bellini’s Norma and Christian Gerhaher with Schubert’s Die Winterreise, and Anne-Sophie Mutter breathtakingly delivering Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Robin Ticciati, the ballerino conductor, is not my favorite, but together they certainly impressed in Mendelssohn.
Mahler as dramatist! Mahler Symphony no 8 with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Now we know why Mahler didn't write opera. His music is inherently theatrical, and his dramas lie not in narrative but in internal metaphysics. The Royal Festival Hall itself played a role, literally, since the singers moved round the performance space, making the music feel particularly fluid and dynamic. This was no ordinary concert.
Imagine a fête galante by Jean-Antoine Watteau brought to life, its colour and movement infusing a bucolic scene with charm and theatricality. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opéra-ballet Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques, is one such amorous pastoral allegory, its three entrées populated by shepherds and sylvans, real characters such as Sapho and mythological gods such as Mercury.
Whatever one’s own religious or spiritual beliefs, Bach’s St Matthew Passion is one of the most, perhaps the most, affecting depictions of the torturous final episodes of Jesus Christ’s mortal life on earth: simultaneously harrowing and beautiful, juxtaposing tender stillness with tragic urgency.
Lindy Hume’s sensational La bohème at the Berliner Staatsoper brings out the moxie in Puccini. Abdellah Lasri emerged as a stunning discovery. He floored me with his tenor voice through which he embodied a perfect Rodolfo.
Listening to Moritz Eggert’s Caliban is the equivalent of watching a flea-ridden dog chasing its own tail for one-and-half hours. It scratches, twitches and yelps. Occasionally, it blinks pleadingly, but you can’t bring yourself to care for such a foolish animal and its less-than-tragic plight.
A large audience packed into the Wigmore Hall to hear the two Baroque rarities featured in this melodious performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company. One was by the most distinguished ‘home-grown’ eighteenth-century musician, whose music - excepting some of the lively symphonies - remains seldom performed. The other was the work of a Saxon who - despite a few ups and downs in his relationship with the ‘natives’ - made London his home for forty-five years and invented that so English of genres, the dramatic oratorio.
On March 24, 2017, Los Angeles Opera revived its co-production of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann which has also been seen at the Mariinsky Opera in Leningrad and the Washington National Opera in the District of Columbia.
Ermonela Jaho is fast becoming a favourite of Covent Garden audiences, following her acclaimed appearances in the House as Mimì, Manon and Suor Angelica, and on the evidence of this terrific performance as Puccini’s Japanese ingénue, Cio-Cio-San, it’s easy to understand why. Taking the title role in the first of two casts for this fifth revival of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, Jaho was every inch the love-sick 15-year-old: innocent, fresh, vulnerable, her hope unfaltering, her heart unwavering.
Calliope Tsoupaki’s latest opera, Fortress Europe, premiered as spring began taming the winter storms in the Mediterranean.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary New Sussex Opera has set itself the challenge of bringing together the six scenes - sometimes described as six discrete ‘tone poems’ - which form Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet into a coherent musico-dramatic narrative.
Reflections on former visits to Opera Holland Park usually bring to mind late evening sunshine, peacocks, Japanese gardens, the occasional chilly gust in the pavilion and an overriding summer optimism, not to mention committed performances and strong musical and dramatic values.
Do you remember a moment when a piece, new to you, so engaged you that you immediately wanted to know more. . .or all about it?
I can recall, as a student, hearing a guest concert by the Bavarian Radio Symphony in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall that opened with Carlos Kleiber leading a thrilling reading of the overture to Weber’s “Der Freischütz.” (Every chestnut was once new to those who hadn’t heard it before, right?)
After this “teaser,” I discovered that the whole opera was not only under-represented on recordings at the time, but also that in America it was hardly ever seen at all, remaining more talked about than performed. The reason for the neglect of this “first German opera” is perhaps partly because of extended dialogue scenes which have trouble making their effect in cavernous theatres; partly because of a pervading mysticism that can seem rather silly today (except maybe to adherents of L. Ron Hubbard); and the notoriously difficult staging demands needed to credibly bring off the rather clunky dramaturgy of the “Wolf’s Crag” scene (which can so easily become so very cheesy).
More’s the pity that it is so rarely attempted, because I find much of the music sublime, that is, if you have the singers to meet its challenges. And therein perhaps lies the real reason for its neglect, since there are certainly other pieces that are dialogue heavy and dramatically “challenging” that get regular mountings (“Die Zauberflöte” comes to mind). Weber’s opus not only requires a hero and heroine with sizable, flexible heroic voices, but a bass-baritone with chords of steel. All are called upon to maintain a mounting and plausible tension in the plentiful dialogue.
Happily, in Germany, “Freischütz” is attempted much more often, though still not nearly with the frequency of other mainstream masterpieces. In my experience the two separate Frankfurt productions (one memorable only for a terrific Angela Denoke, the other for the goofiness of having the hunters got-up as Hassidic Jews); the Achim Freyer version in Stuttgart (which others liked much more than I); and even a well-meant staging in Seattle with (a slightly mis-cast) Deborah Voigt; all left me admiring individual components but none adding up to a total package. Until now.
Cologne Opera has unveiled a new staging under the sure direction of Michael Heinicke, with a pleasing traditional set and costume design by Jens Kilian, all quite beautifully lit by Hans Toelstede. Just when you thought you may never see the like again, here is a “take” with - *gasp* - actual pretty dirndls and proper-looking hunters, and a huge, gorgeous, many-branched tree that fills the stage. In the first flush of fall, its leaves just turning, and beautifully lit, it elicited gasps at curtain rise. “Agathe’s” room was a skeletal “wall” frame of 4 X 4's, sparsely furnished, through which the ever-present tree kept nature smack at the center of things.
Mr. Heinicke is an unfussy director who, blessedly, does not seem to need to impose much of anything but common sense and strong stage pictures onto the piece. Almost everything and everybody is what or who they are supposed to be. He has elicited sincere and affecting performances from an excellent cast. However, perhaps out of obligation to do something “modern,” there are one or two moments when “Freischütz” misfires.
Just after Max loses the initial shooting contest, the taunting chorus is suddenly joined by a sextet of actual pit musicians, playing onstage in their concert attire, who join in tormenting him. Too, there is a piece of business in which “Agathe” pretends to play a cello as accompaniment to “Ännchen’s” aria. She is so clearly not playing it that it only distracts. And, in a “what-does-that-mean?” moment, “Ännchen” places the flower arrangement on the lip of the stage mid-Act I, next to the prompter’s box, where it remains until picked up again when the flowers are required in Act II. I would hope that some consideration would be given to tweaking these jarring bits, because for the rest of the evening I thought the staging had most everything one could want.
The acting was not only believable, but for once the declamation was not of the phoney- baloney Dudley Do-Right School of Operatic Elocution. “Samiel” (Joachim Berger) was a looming and evil omni-presence who eerily appeared up in the crook of the tree, evaporated into the darkened background at will, and attempted complete control over the turns-of-events, including a sinister hovering during “Agathe’s” second act aria. The “Hermit” (Wilfried Staber) too had several silent and mysterious appearances long in advance of his usual sung entrance late in Act II.
The fine young Croatian baritone Miljenko Turk (wonderful as “Billy Budd” last season) brought beauty of tone and attractive demeanor to “Ottokar.” Katharin Leyhe’s “Ännchen” was not just the usual chirpy kewpie doll, but had a tall, solid physique du role and brought some welcome starch to her characterization, producing some lovely lyric singing in the bargain. Venerable bass Ulrich Hielscher made a perfect fatherly “Kuno.” He was also feted at curtain call for his 30 years service with the company, by being made a “Kammersaenger.”
Lithuanian soprano Ausrine Stundyte had just the right amount of heft and metal in her pleasing sound to make a winning Agathe. The hushed “Leise, leise” was beautifully internalized, and the soaring stretto section delivered all the goods. She was totally committed to the Nervous Nellie characterization that was asked of her. Indeed, I thought she was going to have a nervous breakdown in several moments -- at least I hope she was acting! (It was reminiscent of Judy in her later years. . .)
Thomas Mohr was a splendid Max. While his firm lower-voiced singing displays some signs of his former life as a baritone, the top rings true, his sense of line is commendable, his dramatic commitment is effectively varied, and he poured out beautiful sound all night long in all registers. We may have gotten spoiled, wishing every leading tenor could look like Juan Diego Florez or William Burden, and that Mr. Mohr does not. But he exuded a genuine, conflicted appeal nonetheless, albeit more in the Paul Giamatti mode.
The knockout performance this night came from the completely mesmerizing, thrillingly sung “Kaspar” of Korean bass Samuel Yuon. His focused, steely tone cut through the orchestra with ease, and his fiery melismatic work was right on the money. Moreover, he avoided every cliche that has encumbered this role in the past with acting of amazing nuance. Even the sometimes hokey asides of “Hilft, Samiel” hit their mark. His star turn in the “Wolf’s Crag” conjuring scene was awesome. I should add that he was ably abetted by some very good, strobe-like lighting effects which made the static tree actually seem to move about.
Memory having the ennobling effect that it does, I suppose nothing will ever completely over-ride my first happy encounter with the opera’s overture those many years ago. But I found Enrico Delamboye’s conducting to be very well-considered overall. He favored faster tempi than some, with the bridesmaid’s tune and a couple of the choruses especially quick-paced. There was a brief scrappy moment or two, like the opening bars of the overture’s first agitato and a slight hiccup in the opening chorus. But even in the relatively dry acoustic of the Cologne house, the Guerzenich Orchestra, chorus and cast responded to him with often expansive, always persuasive Romantic music-making of a very high order.
If you, too, have longed for an encounter with the best of all possible performances of “Der Freischütz,” well, this could very likely be the one you’ve been waiting for.