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Scene from Doktor Faust (photo courtesy of Bayerische Staatsoper)
20 Jul 2008

Idomeneo and Doktor Faust at München Opernfestspiele

The Bayerische Staatsoper, based in three spectacular houses where Mozart, Wagner and many other composers premiered their works, presents over 300 annual performances to a discerning public.

Above: Scene from Doktor Faust (photo courtesy of Bayerische Staatsoper)


Some of what one hears there is as fine as any opera in the world today; the rest comes close. München’s July Summer Festival may lack the superstar glitz of neighboring Salzburg, but it offers wider repertoire in greater acoustical intimacy at one third the price—and, outside the door, the urban amenities are far more plentiful. This year I attended new productions of Mozart’s Idomeneo and Busoni’s Doktor Faust.

The Idomeneo was bound to be special, as it marked the 350th anniversary of the construction of the Cuvilliés Theater—a Rococo gem where Mozart premiered the work in 1781. (But not, strictly speaking, the very spot where he did so. The theater was dismantled during World War II to avoid Allied bombing that destroyed its original location in Munich’s downtown Residenz Palace. It was reconstructed after the war in an adjoining section of the palace.) The theater has recently been newly re-renovated with the attention to detail that epitomizes the Bavarian devotion to their past, including a delicate pastel-colored forecourt, now glass-covered, that magically shifts mood with the deepening summer twilight.

Idomeneo marked Mozart’s operatic liberation. The invitation to write an opera for München in 1781 freed the young composer from Salzburg’s provincial confines. For the first time, some of Europe’s best musicians were at his disposal. In the overture, Mozart’s pent-up energy explodes in bravura wind passages, sharp brass chords, and sweeping orchestral tuttis. The architectural anniversary was surely an appropriate moment to let the orchestra, led by München’s Music Director Kent Nagano, speak for itself.

It was not to be. No sooner had Nagano given the downbeat than dozens of soldiers dressed in football pads cum Star Wars Storm Trooper suits ran on stage to simulate Trojan War tableaux with a ruckus of splattered blood. And so it went. Dieter Dorn’s chaotic visual energy can be invigorating, but it is more often exhausting, burying Mozart under mayhem. He tends, moreover, to fall back on Regietheater clichés: the rear wall of the theater served as the backdrop, broken historical artifacts littered the stage, costumes confused time and place, crowds glared angrily at aristocrats, who in turn clutched the scenery.

Still, I have to confess I loved a few of Dorn’s concepts. During Elettra’s final showpiece aria, rather than having her squirm and twist in a torment of “serpents and adders”, as one conventionally sees, Elettra inadvertently calls forth slimy, blood-stained furies out of the floor, who pull her down to hell—a female Don Giovanni. It is high camp, of course, but it brings the text onomatopoeically to life. In a more realistic production, it would work even better: Someone should steal the idea.

Musically, this Idomeneo labors under two disadvantages. First, despite the charm and intimacy of the Cuvilliés, everyone sounds hoarse. Unflattering acoustics, it is said, are a result of a concrete shell irreversibly laid in the post-war renovation. Second, who decided to eschew the now commonplace mezzo Idamante in favor of a tenor, with its far less poignant Act III writing? (While we are at it, who decided, amidst an otherwise largely uncut Idomeneo--indeed, with the extra ballet music at the end—to excise the second verse of “O voto tremendo”, one of the most spine-tingling moments in all of Mozart opera?) We live, after all, in an era of great lyric mezzos. I hope the decision was not taken to profile the Slovakian tenor Pavol Breslik. He may be the hot young Mozartian in Europe today. But his heady, unsupported tone grated after a while and seemed not to promise a long career. Perhaps I just caught him on an off night or in unfavorable acoustics.

Far more impressive—the highlight of the evening vocally—was John Mark Ainsley in the title role. To be sure, the voice is on the light side for a role often assumed these days by heavyweights (even Plácido Domingo). But one hears every note come scritto and unfudged, with interpolations superadded—a spectacular achievement rare on stage. Juliane Banse, by contrast, sounded as if she may have outgrown Ilia, at least in small halls: Unevenness of color and weight undermined the nobility of her characterization. Rainer Trost’s Arbace had more weight and warmth, but the voice sounds worn. Young Berlinerin Annette Dasch made an exciting, good-looking, but vocally bland, Elettra.

Nagano’s approach was more relaxed and less idiosyncratic than in his 2004 Los Angeles performances, and the orchestra responded brilliantly. Yet one wondered why he was conducting Idomeneo when he might have waited one night and conducted the premiere of Busoni’s unfinished masterpiece, Doktor Faust—a score of which he is perhaps today’s leading exponent, having recorded it for Erato just a few years ago.

Instead we got Tomáš Netopil, a young Czech about whom no one knew much. Conducting Busoni is a difficult task: The polyglot composer cycles through an eclectic range of forms, which he deploys with a mixture of German modernism and Italianate post-Romanticism. Netopil‘s take on Busoni is impressive without being entirely convincing: He thins the orchestral sound to an impressionist shimmer, then punctuates it with harsh expressionist blasts. Despite the fuller acoustics of the National Theater, one feels the absence of Busoni’s sensuous Italian side, as well as any serious attempt to integrate the score into a compelling whole.

The rising young Wagnerian baritone Wolfgang Koch, making his house debut, strained at times to project over Netopil’s orchestra, but nonetheless handled the title role with clear tone and diction. Still, his is not a characterization distinctive enough to challenge memories of Fischer-Dieskau or Hampson. British tenor John Daszak did justice to Mephistopheles, if similarly without that extra touch of suaveness and assurance. The Duchess of Parma, by contrast, is a sure-fire soprano turn. She comes on midway through a “difficult” opera without other female leads: The setting is romantic, the character sexy, the music Busoni at his most Puccinian, and (in this production) she takes off most of her clothes. No wonder Californian Catherine Naglestad was an audience favorite. With shimmering Mozartian tone, she earned it honestly.

And what of the staging? Like Dorn’s Idomeneo, Nicolas Brieger’s production of Doktor Faust is constructed like a contemporary art work: a series of stunning, sometimes shocking visual tableaus that do not quite add up. The idea is to present Faust as mid-life crisis: a frustrated and solipsistic modern artist—a man stuck in a rut of sterile self-portraiture—gets in touch with his inner demons. The idea is hackneyed, even a bit silly, but some of his theatrical concepts are clever: The temptations of youth are bronze nude dancers hanging from the ceiling. Mephistopheles emerges from Faust’s ass as an evil twin biker in drag. The Parma scene ends with only the adulterous duchess’s wedding dress left standing center stage. Faust conjures up Helen of Troy in the form of large letters spelling H-E-L-E-N-A: an abstraction, rather than a reality.

Yet much else muddied the central concept: Why, in the mid-life crisis view, is Parma the land of Fascist bosses, pastel zoot-suits and tiny buildings? Why is Wittenberg filled with candles? Why is Faust an artist anyway? As often the case in director-led productions, moreover, visual pyrotechnics come at the cost of stage direction: Faust and the Devil grimace and fulminate, but rarely truly engage with one another.

At the end of the evening, the directorial team opted for neither of the available conclusions to Busoni’s unfinished score, but instead abruptly stopped the music where Busoni broke off his composition. Following the trail blazed by the San Francisco Opera, the final lines were spoken—an unsettling, enigmatic solution to a perennial problem.

Overall, Idomeneo and Doktor Faust were sophisticated and engaging near-misses. Uneven casting, odd conducting choices, and directorial overkill seemed to confirm rumors that the Bayerische Staatsoper is suffering from a crisis of leadership since the departure of former Intendant Peter Jonas in 2006. Local newspapers report that the arrival of Intendant Klaus Bachler from Vienna this fall may even place Nagano’s status in question. One hopes not, and that this excellent company will instead refocus its energy in the years to come. Even so, a few days at the Bayerische Staatsoper are always very much worth the trip.

Andrew Moravcsik

Click here for a photo gallery of Idomeneo.

Click here for a photo gallery of Doktor Faust.

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