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?
Die Meistersinger at the theatre in which it was premiered, on Wagner’s birthday: an inviting prospect by any standards, still more so given the director, conductor, and cast, still more so given the opportunity to see three different productions within little more than a couple of months).
Opera houses’ neglect of Janáček remains one of the most baffling of the many baffling aspects of the ‘repertoire’. At least three of the composer’s operas would be perfect introductions to the art form: Jenůfa, Katya Kabanova, or The Cunning Little Vixen would surely hook most for life. From the House of the Dead might do likewise for someone of a rather different disposition, sceptical of opera’s claims and conventions.
Director Annabel Arden believes that Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia is ‘all about playfulness, theatricality, light and movement’. It’s certainly ‘about’ those things and they are, as Arden suggests, ‘based in the music’.
George Enescu’s Oedipe was premiered in Paris 1936 but it has taken 80 years for the opera to reach the stage of Covent Garden. This production by Àlex Ollé (a member of the Catalan theatrical group, La Fura Dels Baus) and Valentina Carrasco, which arrives in London via La Monnaie where it was presented in 2011, was eagerly awaited and did not disappoint.
Lyric Opera of Chicago staged Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette as the last opera in its current subscription season.
‘The plot is perhaps the least moral in all opera; wrong triumphs in the name of love and we are not expected to mind.’
Anthony Minghella’s production of Madame Butterfly for ENO is wearing well. First seen in 2005, it is now being aired for the sixth time and is still, as I observed in 2013, ‘a breath-taking visual banquet’.
This concert version of La straniera felt like a compulsory musicology field trip, but it had enough vocal flashes to lobby for more frequent performances of this midway Bellini.
As poetry is the harmony of words, so music is that of notes; and as poetry is a rise above prose and oratory, so is music the exaltation of poetry.
From experiments with musique concrète in the 1940s, to the Minimalists’ explorations into tape-loop effects in the 1960s, via the appearance of hip-hop in the 1970s and its subsequent influence on electronic dance music in the 1980s, to digital production methods today, ‘sampling’ techniques have been employed by musicians working in genres as diverse as jazz fusion, psychedelic rock and classical music.
On May 7, 2016, San Diego Opera presented the West Coast premiere of Great Scott, an opera by Terrence McNally and Jake Heggie. McNally’s original libretto pokes fun at everything from football to bel canto period opera. It includes snippets of nineteenth century tunes as well as Heggie's own bel canto writing.
A foiled abduction, a castle-threatening inferno, romantic infatuation, guilt-laden near-suicide, gun-shots and knife-blows: Andrea Leone Tottola’s libretto for Vincenzo Bellini’s first opera, Adelson e Salvini, certainly does not lack dramatic incident.
Opera as an art form has never shied away from the grittier shadows of life. Nor has Manitoba Opera, with its recent past productions dealing with torture, incest, murder and desperate political prisoners still so tragically relevant today.
Published in 1855 as an entertainment for his two daughters, William Makepeace Thackeray’s The Rose and the Ring is a burlesque fairy-tale whose plot — to the author’s wilful delight, perhaps — defies summation and elucidation.
What more fitting memorial for composer Peter Maxwell Davies (d. 03/14/2016) than a splendid performance of The Lighthouse, the third of his eight works for the stage.
I suspect that many of those at the Wigmore Hall for The King’s Consort’s performance of the La Senna festeggiante (The Rejoicing Seine) were lured by the cachet of ‘Antonio Vivaldi’ and further enticed by the notion of a lover’s serenade at which the generic term ‘serenata’ seems to hint.
Having enjoyed superb singing by a young cast of soloists in Classical Opera’s UK premiere of Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso the previous evening, I was delighted that the 2016 Kathleen Ferrier Awards Final at the Wigmore Hall confirmed the strength and depth of talent possessed by the young singers studying in and emerging from our academies and conservatoires.
On February 7, 1786, Emperor Joseph II of Austria had brand new one-act operas by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri performed in the Schönbrunn Palace’s Orangery.
Those poor opera lovers in Cologne have a never ending problem with the city’s opera house. Together with the rest of city, the construction of the new opera house is mired in political incompetence.
London remains starved of Wagner. This season, its major companies offer but two works, Tannhäuser from the Royal Opera and Tristan from ENO.
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.