25 May 2008
A Berlin Sampler
A recent visit to Berlin’s three opera houses yielded decidedly, nay wildly varying outcomes.
Best of the season so far! William Christie and Les Arts Florissants performed Rameau Grand Motets at late night Prom 17. Perfection, as one would expect from arguably the finest Rameau interpreters in the business, and that's saying a lot, given the exceptionally high quality of French baroque performance in the last 40 years.
Twelve years after Opera Holland Park's first production of Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, the opera made a welcome return.
The Italianate cloister setting at Iford chimes neatly with Monteverdi’s penultimate opera The Return of Ulysses, as the setting cannot but bring to mind those early days of the musical genre. The world of commercial public opera had only just dawned with the opening of the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice in 1637 and for the first time opera became open to all who could afford a ticket, rather than beholden to the patronage of generous princes. Monteverdi took full advantage of the new stage and at the age of 73 brought all his experience of more than 30 years of opera-writing since his ground-breaking L’Orfeo (what a pity we have lost all those works) to the creation of two of his greatest pieces, Ulysses and then his final masterpiece, Poppea.
Once again, we find ourselves thanking an unrepresentable being for Welsh National Opera’s commitment to its mission. It is a sad state of affairs when a season that includes both Boulevard Solitude and Moses und Aron is considered exceptional, but it is - and is all the more so when one contrasts such seriousness of purpose with the endless revivals of La traviata which, Die Frau ohne Schatten notwithstanding, seem to occupy so much of the Royal Opera’s effort. That said, if the Royal Opera has not undertaken what would be only its second ever staging of Schoenberg’s masterpiece - the first and last was in 1965, long before most of us were born! - then at least it has engaged in a very welcome ‘WNO at the Royal Opera House’ relationship, in which we in London shall have the opportunity to see some of the fruits of the more adventurous company’s endeavours.
If you don’t have the means to get to the Rossini festival in Pesaro, you would do just as well to come to Indianola, Iowa, where Des Moines Metro Opera festival has devised a heady production of Le Comte Ory that is as long on belly laughs as it is on musical fireworks.
Composed during just a few weeks of the summer of 1926, Janáček’s Slavonic-text Glagolitic Mass was first performed in Brno in December 1927. During the rehearsals for the premiere - just 3 for the orchestra and one 3-hour rehearsal for the whole ensemble - the composer made many changes, and such alterations continued so that by the time of the only other performance during Janáček’s lifetime, in Prague in April 1928, many of the instrumental (especially brass) lines had been doubled, complex rhythmic patterns had been ‘ironed-out’ (the Kyrie was originally in 5/4 time), a passage for 3 off-stage clarinets had been cut along with music for 3 sets of pedal timpani, and choral passages were also excised.
With the conclusion of the ROH 2013-14 season on Saturday evening - John Copley’s 40-year old production of La Bohème bringing down the summer curtain - the sun pouring through the gleaming windows of the Floral Hall was a welcome invitation to enjoy a final treat. The Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Showcase offered singers whom we have admired in minor and supporting roles during the past year the opportunity to step into the spotlight.
Many words have already been spent - not all of them on musical matters - on Richard Jones’s Glyndebourne production of Der Rosenkavalier, which last night was transported to the Royal Albert Hall. This was the first time at the Proms that Richard Strauss’s most popular opera had been heard in its entirety and, despite losing two of its principals in transit from Sussex to SW1, this semi-staged performance offered little to fault and much to admire.
Twenty years ago stage director Christopher Alden introduced Rossini’s then forgotten comedy to Southern California audiences in a production that is still remembered. In Aix Alden has revisited this complex work that many critics now consider Rossini’s greatest comedy.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
That’s A Winter’s Journey and A Night of Mourning for metteurs-en-scène William Kentridge (South Africa) and Katie Mitchell (Great Britain), completing the clean sweep of English language stage directors for the Aix Festival productions this year.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
A recent visit to Berlin’s three opera houses yielded decidedly, nay wildly varying outcomes.
Granted, it may have been hard for any indoor performance to totally upstage the glorious early summer weather and delicious seasonal white asparagus entrees on offer in any number of attractive and pleasant outdoor eateries. But venture indoors I did. . .
Staatsoper unter den Linden offered a well-traveled production of “La Traviata” that was very long on concept and conversely short on just about everything else. The major exception was the wonderful playing from the orchestra under the baton of Dan Ettinger. Save for an inexplicably scrappy moment or two in Act Three (Flora’s party), the ensemble showed great presence and stylistic acumen, tempered by sensitive and subtle support of the soloists.
Would that stage director Peter Mussbach have had as much success with his vision of the piece as Violetta’s one woman show. Poor Elzbieta Szmytka started out floating toward us from far upstage as a ghostly apparition during the prelude and simply never left the stage the entire evening.
This opening moment indeed promised much. A black raked stage with two ramps escaping into the pit was dotted with interrupted receding white lines brought into great relief (along with our diva’s white strapless gown) with black light. A swirling, disorienting light show dissolved into a highly evocative over-sized video projection of rain on a window pane, an image that framed the entire stage. And then. . .
Nothing much happened. Okay, to be fair a shiny slit drape flew in upstage but then it remained there constantly through opera’s end. The chorus in the opening act sang from off stage until the farewell chorus when they dutifully filed on, and then off. Soloists paraded through, and down into the pit without relating to Violetta who alternately swooned to the floor, stood up again unsteadily, or mostly, stood and sang front.
Was this Violetta’s dying delusion? A video projection of a car going through a tunnel, and later, of many cars in heavy traffic proved to be a red herring, evoking thoughts of Princess Di’s untimely end without any other parallels drawn. It did clarify that the white marks on the stage were highway-like traffic lines on a “dramatic” highway to nowhere. . .
The stage was bare until Act Two when a single chair was placed down center. Then in Act Three (or the second scene of Act Two if you’re a purist) the chorus files on, each holding a chair. They first sit in rows, then rise indignantly after Alfredo throws the money at Violetta (well, in the air like confetti really), and then all, to a person, jump up and stand on the chairs like they have collectively seen a mouse. Where the “chair-mounting music” is in this score, I couldn’t tell you. Or maybe they suddenly realized they were playing in the “traffic,” which had returned to the video projector?
If there were some interesting ideas in the Violetta-Germont duet, there were also major miscalculations. After having begun routinely, it regressed into first a rather touching moment with Germont as a comforting substitute father, but then transgressed into a creepy sort of Daddy sexual encounter during which he put his hand a bit too far up her skirt for our comfort level.
Does it surprise you to learn that there was no bed in the final act, which began with the same ghostly promenade as at the beginning? As the stage lights got brighter, we discovered Alfredo asleep upstage on the floor. Asleep upstage! As he got up and stretched and yawned, it prompted me to wonder if this whole thing might have been meant to have been his dream. At least in the final duet, the characters related to each other, albeit only slightly.
While great vocalism might have injected interest, what we had on offer was merely “good.” The minor roles were certainly sung competently, with “Flora” quite beautifully voiced by Katherina Kammerloher.
Alfredo Daza as “Germont” displayed a beautiful, buzzy baritone, but he bullied his way through too many phrases, and his take-no-prisoners entrance at “Flora’s” was way out of decibel proportion to what the moment requires. While many of his over-sung high notes went sharp, his effective softer parlando phrases proved what a fine singer he could be. A gentler approach, and the deployment of a true “ee” vowel could make him a major asset to the international roster.
Marius Brenciu’s “Alfredo” was afflicted with the same propensity to force top notes off pitch, although he too has a good instrument and handsome appearance which offered much pleasure. Our leading baritone and tenor were both usually singing about a third louder than needed to fill this house, a factor that also somewhat marred Ms. Szmytka’s artfully sung “Violetta.”
For when she jumped up to full-voice exposed high notes, too much passion and pressure forced them to splay and lose focus. As compensation, she was highly effective in her introspective work, and her “Addio del passato” was a glory of her interpretation. I felt the somewhat dry voice was slow to warm up, but once it did, she negotiated the demands of the role with considerable success. Above all she displayed mature artistry and totally focused commitment.
None of the cast was helped by the decision to put the evening’s sole intermission just before the final act. Nor by the total discouragement of traditional opportunities for applause for the set pieces. Ultimately, the director succeeded in keeping the audience at arms-length, in defeating interaction between the principals, and in tiring us with repetitious visual imagery. Not the elements that contribute to a very memorable “Traviata.”
Happily, “Die Zauberfloete” at the Deutsche Oper was a delight on almost all levels. First, while the u.d. Linden crowd seemed to be largely silver-haired subscribers, about half of the packed “Flute” audience seemed to be school age young people who were jazzed to be there. With such a completely different ambiance from the start, this well-known Singspiel (in its 238th performance of the current production) communicated with a freshness and vitality that eludes many premiere evenings.
Andreas Reinhardt’s colorful and inventive designs have been well-maintained, the best feature being a runway around the pit, the least being a sight-line restricting tree on the down right lip of the stage. Small matter that, since the liberal use of colorful over sized billowing silks, puppetry, and Asian-inspired theatrical performance elements swept us along on a visually varied and highly satisfying ride. Especially handsome was a garden tableau evocative of “The Peaceable Kingdom.”
Herr Reinhardt was ably abetted by an uncredited but terrific lighting design. The golden glow of the temple scenes was but one of the many effective effects. I could have done without the eventual end-of-scene blackouts which I felt impeded the overall momentum, but this was very fine work overall. If the caricatured black make-up on the Moors was decidedly un-P.C., the Germans seem to retain rather an innocence about it all.
Guenter Kraemer’s direction (and/or whoever restaged it) used all of the stage well, not the least of which was the use of the runway. This especially afforded “Papageno” the opportunity to wholly engage the audience. And to that end, we had a willing collaborator with the winning performance of Simon Pauly. A superb comic actor who thinks on his feet, he took well-calculated risks in soliciting audience participation, as a “taster” for his glass of wine for example, or as ringer of the magic bells, the latter amusingly filling what can be a lengthy stretch in the “Das Maedchen oder Wiebchen” aria. While he also sang quite well, it was Mr. Pauly’s acting that carried the day. He was well-partnered by a lovely and charismatic “Papagena” in the person of Ditte Andersen.
The excellent “Three Ladies” of Jacquelyn Wagner, Sarah Ferede, and Julia Benzinger were well-matched, and Burkhard Ulrich was easily the very best “Monastatos” I have encountered. While she will not make you forsake Edita or Natalie or Diana, Burcu Uyar was a decent “Queen of the Night,” far more comfortable in the second aria than in the first.
The “Two Armored Men,” Paul Kaufmann and Hyung-Wook Lee offered solid singing. Arutjun Koptchnian was just fine as “Sarastro,” his orotund sound more pleasing to me in the two big arias than in his other scene work. Young Joel Prieto seems destined for a fine career if his well-voiced “Tamino” is any indication. Already performing this role well, I predict that in a few year down the road he will be performing it memorably well. Fionnuala McCarthy’s naive blond approach to “Pamina” worked fine once I got used to it. She has a pure, well-schooled soprano from which I occasionally wanted more warmth. “Ach, ich fuehl’s” seemed a bit uninvolved (and maybe a bit too brisk).
The “Three Boys” (unnamed) from the Dresden Kreuzchor were competent, the diction quite muddy, and the intonation variable. I have only once really enjoyed the casting of boys in these parts, finding female voices much more satisfying. Even the “cute” factor was diminished in this production by their sit-and-sing deployment, keeping them relatively uninvolved in the drama and inviting one of them to look about in boredom.
For sheer fine singing, veteran Lenus Carlson took the evening’s honors as he rolled out one beautiful sonorous phrase after another as the “Speaker.” The excellent orchestra under the sure hand of Matthias Foremny was an unusually sensitive partner to the singers, offering a pliant, delicate Mozart reading of the highest quality.
Would that Wolfgang had been so well served the next night at the Komische Oper. For those who may have been eagerly awaiting “Abu Ghraib - The Musical,” your wait is over.
For those who wanted to see “The Abduction from the Seraglio,” stay far away because Bad Boy Bieito has been at it again. Calixto Bieito seems to me to have become famous for being famous. Famously provocative, that is. While great directors illuminate, clarify, focus, and re-imagine well-known classic pieces, Mr. Bieito seems to be content to wantonly defile them willy-nilly in any way that will fuel attention to his “artistry.” For starters, the published spoken lines of this “Abduction” have either been cut, or just plain re-written, with dramatic situations eliminated or altered to suit the “concept.”
One example is that “Pedrillo” enters and yells after the exiting “Osmin” -- in English -- “I am sick and tired of you busting my balls. How would you like it if someone came after you (with a gun) and blew your tiny dick off?” He then starting playing basketball with “Belmonte” who had entered and they began conversing in German again.
The taint was evident from the start. The revolving stage set is a series of Plexiglas, brothel-like “Love Modules.” As the overture begins, a scantily clad trapeze artist descends from the flies, and after some routine tricks, starts performing some very suggestive acts. “Osmin” enters chasing a buxom “extra” (I heard they were real prostitutes, these extras) and they chase each other, disrobing totally as they go, ending in bed doing the deed.
They finish sex during “Belmonte’s” opening aria, and naked, portly, hairy “Osmin” proceeds to shower. No, really, shower. To go much further into all this depravity would be to dignify it with more importance than it deserves. Suffice it to say, whatever sexual kink you could think of, and several you wouldn’t, are on display.
“Constanze” is kept in a small rolling cage on a dog collar and leash. “Belmonte” is dressed up in drag to get him into the harem. Remember all that dialogue about his being an architect? Gone. Scantily clad “Blondchen” teases “Osmin” during her first aria, allowing him to lie on the floor and look up her skirt, and subsequently to take her from behind as she sings on her hands and knees. A drug addict, “Pedrillo” steals some of her Valium to spike “Osmin’s” vodka. Remember that important bit about the two bottles of wine? Gone. Now during “Vivat Bacchus” the bass shoots at the tenor until he wounds him in the knee.
During “Martern aller arten” our singing soprano is forced to watch “Osmin” snuff one of the extras, cutting her with a knife and slitting her throat after first straddling her and forcing her to perform oral sex. The violent kicking sound she produced as she was dispatched took the ginger out of those pesky melismas in the “incidental” aria, let me tell you.
“Pedrillo” and “Belmonte” shoot absolutely every extra in the process of their various sex acts in the “Love Modules” after “Ich baue ganz,” “Constanze” ultimately shoots and kills “Selim,” and “Pedrillo” takes out “Osmin” but not before the bass has tasted necrophilia with one of the dead extras. In the most despicably cynical moment of all, in the show’s last moment a spotlit, kneeling “Constanze” gets shot dead on the music’s final button by “someone.” So much for forgiveness and hope, huh?
Does it make you feel any better to know that the small house was only one third full on a Friday night in Berlin when it was the only opera in town? Or that a number of patrons defied the decision to play the piece without intermission by creating their own and walking out? Or that the silence at curtain was pierced by a “boo” and then tepid applause? Nope, me neither.
The tragedy is that the orchestra played wonderfully for young Stefan Klingele. The pliable, hard-working cast was peopled with fine, good-looking young singers. Edgaras Montvidas was a great “Belmonte,” singing with power and richness of tone. Christoph Spaeth was a fearless actor as “Pedrillo,” and he provided an accomplished comprimario reading. The tall and lovely “Blonde” of Mojca Erdmann was very well sung and shamelessly performed. Guntbert Warns’ psychotic, loose cannon of a “Bassa Selim” was embodied with great range and (literally) bare-assed commitment. The totally unsympathetic “Osmin” was nonetheless powerfully sung and acted by Jens Larsen.
The greatest achievement of the night might have been Brigitte Christensen’s “Constanze,” had we ever been able to concentrate on her fine singing, and not be distracted by the ugly stage business, and by an unflattering skimpy slip. What a shame for all these artists that they were pawns in a self indulgent ego display. It is curious that some intelligentsia promote the notion that opera needs to be “saved” from boring traditional production practices by provocative re-workings like this, when truth to tell, this Bieito version got even more boringly repetitive, annoying, and predictable after a very short period of time.
The most perverse act of fornication was the one saved for the audience who paid money to see what they thought would be Mozart’s immortal opera. In the future perhaps a little truth in advertising should say “loosely based on ‘Abduction from the Seraglio’” so that Mozart lovers can make an informed decision.