07 Apr 2008
Barenboim and Berlin — beauty and brilliance
BERLIN — Which car-rental agency was it that was once No. 2 and “trying harder?”
Nixon in China is a three-act opera with a libretto by Alice Goodman and music by John Adams that was first seen at the Houston Grand Opera on October 22, 1987. It was the first of a notable line of operas by the composer.
It is thanks to Céline Ricci, mezzo-soprano and director of Ars Minerva, that we have been able to again hear Daniele Castrovillari’s exquisite melodies because she is the musician who has brought his 1662 opera La Cleopatra to life.
Lyric Opera of Chicago, in association with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has staged a production of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser with an estimable cast.
Puccini and his fellow verismo-ists are commonly associated with explosions of unbridled human passion and raw, violent pain, but in this revival (by Justin Way) of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, directorial understatement together with ravishing scenic beauty are shown to be more potent ways of enabling the sung voice to reveal the emotional depths of human tragedy.
Rarely, very rarely does a Tosca come around that you can get excited about. Sure, sometimes there is good singing, less often good conducting but rarely is there a mise en scène that goes beyond stock opera vocabulary.
The Nash Ensemble’s 50th Anniversary Celebrations at the Wigmore Hall were crowned by a recital that typifies the Nash’s visionary mission. Above, the dearly-loved founder, Amelia Freeman, a quietly revolutionary figure in her own way, who has immeasurably enriched the cultural life of this country.
On March 7, 2015, Arizona Opera presented Dan Rigazzi’s production of Die Zauberflöte in Tucson. Inspired by the works of René Magritte, designer John Pollard filled the stage with various sizes of picture frames, windows, and portals from which he leads us into Mozart and Schikaneder’s dream world.
There are some concert programmes which are not just wonderful in their execution but also delight and satisfy because of the ‘rightness’ of their composition. This Wigmore Hall recital by soprano Carolyn Sampson and three period-instrument experts of arias and instrumental pieces by Henry Purcell was one such occasion.
It has been a cold and gray winter in the south of France (where I live) made splendid by some really good opera, followed just now by splendid sunshine at Trafalgar Square and two exquisite productions at English National Opera.
At long last, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny has come to the Royal Opera House. Kurt Weill’s teacher, Busoni, remains scandalously ignored, but a season which includes house firsts both of this opera and Szymanowsi’s King Roger, cannot be all bad.
Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland returned to the Barbican, London, shape-shifted like one of Alice’s adventures. The BBC Symphony Orchestra was assembled en masse, almost teetering off stage, creating a sense of tension. “Eat me, Drink me”. Was Lewis Carroll on hallucinogens or just good at channeling the crazy world of the subconscious?
Dominic Cooke’s 2005 staging of The Magic Flute and Richard Jones’s 1998 production of Hansel and Gretel have been brought together for Welsh National Opera’s spring tour under the unifying moniker, Spellbound.
Gaetano Donizetti and Malcolm Arnold might seem odd operatic bedfellows, but this double bill by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama offered a pair of works characterised by ‘madness, misunderstandings and mistaken identity’ which proved witty, sparkling and imaginatively realised.
Saturday, February 28, 2015, was the first night for Los Angeles Opera’s revival of its 2009 presentation of The Barber of Seville, a production by Emilio Sagi, which comes originally from Teatro Real in Madrid in cooperation with Lisbon’s Teatro San Carlos. Sagi and onsite director, Trevor Ross, made comedy the focus of their production and provided myriad sight gags which kept the audience laughing.
Commenting on her recent, highly acclaimed CD release of late-nineteenth-century song, Chansons Perpétuelles (Naive: V5355), Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux remarked ‘it’s that intimate side that interests me I wanted to emphasise the genuinely embodied, physical side of the sensuality [in Fauré]’.
An evening of strange-bedfellow one-acts in high-concept stagings, mindbogglingly delightful.
On February 19, 2015, Pacific Symphony presented its annual performance of a semi-staged opera. This year’s presentation at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, featured Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Director Dean Anthony used the front of the stage and a few solid set pieces by Scenic Designer Matt Scarpino to depict the opera’s various scenes.
Although the English National Opera has been decidedly sparing with its Wagner for quite some time now, its recent track record, leaving aside a disastrous Ring, has perhaps been better than that at Covent Garden.
On Friday February 20, 2015, San Diego Opera presented Mozart’s Don Giovanni in a production by Nicholas Muni originally seen at Cincinnati Opera.
In a production first seen in Houston several years ago, and now revised by its director John Caird, Puccini’s Tosca has returned to Lyric Opera of Chicago with two casts, partially different, scheduled into March of the present season.
BERLIN — Which car-rental agency was it that was once No. 2 and “trying harder?”
No one remembers, for today — if lines at airport counters are an indication — the two are neck and neck with both doing well. Their competition comes to mind, however, here in Berlin, where the Philharmonic, looking back on golden ages under Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan, has long been the No. 1 orchestra not only here, but — in the eyes of many — in the whole world. In the long-divided city the Staatskapelle, on the other hand, attracted little attention in its primary role as the competent but colorless pit band in the historic Staatsoper on Unter den Linden in the East. Then — in 1989 — the Wall came down, and — in 1992 — Daniel Barenboim was made maestro of the opera and its orchestra.
A week in the city over Easter underscored his success in bringing to both a brilliance that declares them no longer No. 2 to anyone. Easter is, of course, the time for Barenboim and his forces to shine, for the Philharmonic and its charismatic conductor Simon Rattle are off in Salzburg for the spring festival that Karajan founded there. Barenboim performances are the heart of the local “Festtage,” a mini-festival instituted even before the Wall was built to attract audiences to the East.
On March 16 Barenboim kicked off the series at the Staatsoper with the first Berlin staging of Prokofiev’s “The Gambler,” a torrid tale of love and the loss of fortunes based on Dostoyevsky’s 1866 novella that reflected the author’s own addiction to gambling. In an eye-catching updating by Dmitri Tcherniakov, responsible also for sets and costumes, gamblers were on stage in fictional Roulettenburg even before the music began. Prokofiev went to work on “Gambler” in 1915 when he was 24. A first version was slated for production in St. Petersburg, but cancelled when street fighting heralded the revolution. Plans for a Russian staging were later scrapped because the composer was living abroad. The opera — revised in 1927-‘28, was premiered in Brussels in 1929 and has had only a handful of stagings since then. (It played at the Chicago Lyric Opera in 1991.) This made the production at the Staatsoper, where Barenboim is cherished above all for his work with Mozart and Wagner, an event of special interest, and — with best seats selling at 260 Euros (around $400) — the historic house was packed.
Scene from The Gambler
Conductor and orchestra had fully mastered Prokofiev’s chrome-plated score, which with its sharp edges and abrupt corners recalls that “Gambler” is the contemporary of Berg’s “Wozzeck.” The work’s study of a society sick to the depths of its soul is of obvious contemporary relevance. Largely through-composed, “Gambler” gives primacy to the text — sung here in Russian with titles in German, and for it Barenboim assembled a cast of two dozen that was without a weak link. Christine Opolais was stellar and sympathetic as Polina, a young newly rich woman unable to believe that a man could love her without selfish goals, and as that young man Misha Didyk was a dramatically overwhelming Alexej. Outstanding were two character roles: Stefania Toczyska as the matriarchal Babulenka who gambles away jewels and furs to stand figuratively naked before false gods, and bass Vladimir Ognovenko as the equally depraved General. “Gambler” tells a dark and threatening story. Barenboim and his ensemble told it with conviction.
Scene from Die Meistersinger: James Morris (Hans Sachs) and Dorothea Röschmann (Eva)
Barenboim was back on the podium on Palm Sunday to conduct Harry Kupfer’s stunningly colorful production of that most German of all operas, “Die Meistersinger,” and it was on this familiar Wagnerian turf that the he and the Staatsoper were of truly unsurpassable excellence. In his sensitive approach to the Overture Barenboim made voices audible that one had never heard before, and the pathos-ridden Prelude to Act Three, often tossed aside unthinkingly en route to the pageantry of the final scene, was gripping in its bitter sweetness.
In his house debut James Morris, the reigning Wotan of his generation, was touchingly convincing as Hans Sachs, Wagner’s shoemaker torn between his own love for Eva and his support for young Walter in his efforts to break the ossified rules of the master minstrels. Morris played an understated Sachs and was in even smoother and richer voice here than he was for his debut in the role at the San Francisco Opera in 2001 and in the DVD that originated at the Met the following season. Dorothea Röschmann, a Mozartian now moving into lighter Wagner roles, sang Eva with ease and clarity, while Burkhard Fritz was a Walter of often bashful youth. Among the masters Rene’ Pape stood out as an aristocratic Pogner, and Roman Trekel was a handsome — if pedantic — Beckmesser, who avoided clichés of self-parody. And while David and Magdalene are roles often assigned to singers on the eve of retirement, it was refreshing to hear them sung — and sung well — by youthful Florian Hoffmann and Katharina Kammerloher. Yet it was Barenboim who made these two evenings a triumph of perfection. Everything spoke of immense care and concern for the task at hand. And it was a nice touch that Barenboim brought the entire orchestra on stage for a curtain call at the end of “Meistersinger.”
To fully appreciate the excellence of the Staatskapelle, however, one must hear them out of the pit in concert. On March 20 Barenboim took the orchestra to the Philharmonic Hall, Hans Scharoun’s 1963 masterpiece that is beyond doubt the world’s most successful — and beautiful — concert venue. There one witnessed the interaction of Staatskapelle musicians and experienced how closely “in sync” they are with Barenboim. Highlight of the program was Brahms’ D Minor Concerto, played by Lang Lang, today’s sensation among young pianists.
One doubted a few years ago whether the Chinese-born pianist would be able to handle the success that he was, but today it is happily clear that at 25 he has found himself and is headed towards even greater things in the future. Here, again, however, Barenboim deserved much credit for the experience that this was. Long a master among pianists, he know this concerto inside and out, and it was fascinating to watch — and hear — him guide his orchestra through it. This was conducting as it should always be: instructive, shaping and forming — recreating, in short, the piece at hand. It was evident that he and Lang Lang had worked together carefully to make this a memorable performance.
Barenboim, in sum, is one of today’s great artists, and his influence and impact are felt far beyond Berlin. He is the man who broke the Israel taboo on Wagner by conducting the Prelude and “Liebestod” from “Tristan” as an encore there in 2001 — to near-violent reaction from many in the state. He worked with Palestinian scholar Edward Said to found the West-Eastern Divan, an ensemble of young musicians from countries throughout the Middle East that is now of legendary fame. A citizen of Israel, he has now acquired Palestinian citizenship as well.
A note on the Berlin Staatsoper. The building, built originally in 1740 by Friedrich the Great and destroyed and rebuilt many times since then, is in a horrid state of disrepair. Walls are dirty and cracked; carpets are threadbare and floor creak. The building is scheduled to close in 2010 for three years of reconstruction to cost some $260 million.