07 Apr 2008
Barenboim and Berlin — beauty and brilliance
BERLIN — Which car-rental agency was it that was once No. 2 and “trying harder?”
Puccini Manon Lescaut at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich. Some will scream in rage but in its austerity it reaches to the heart of the opera. What is Manon Lescaut really about? The Abbé Prévost's 1731 narrative was a moral discourse. Unlike many modern novels, it wasn't a potboiler but a philosphical tract in which the protagonists face moral dilemmas
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
Plus an evening by the superb Modigliani Quartet that complimented the brief (55 minutes) a cappella opera for six female voices Svadba (2013) by Serbian composer Ana Sokolovic (b. 1968). She lives in Canada.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.
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.