Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

European premiere of Unsuk Chin’s Le Chant des enfants des étoiles, with works by Biber and Beethoven

Excellent programming: worthy of Boulez, if hardly for the literal minded. (‘I think you’ll find [stroking chin] Beethoven didn’t know Unsuk Chin’s music, or Heinrich Biber’s. So … what are they doing together then? And … AND … why don’t you use period instruments? I rest my case!’)

Rising Stars in Concert 2018 at Lyric Opera of Chicago

On a recent weekend evening the performers in the current roster of the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center at Lyric Opera of Chicago presented a concert of operatic selections showcasing their musical talents. The Lyric Opera Orchestra accompanied the performers and was conducted by Edwin Outwater.

Arizona Opera Presents a Glittering Rheingold

On April 6, 2018, Arizona Opera presented an uncut performance of Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold. It was the first time in two decades that this company had staged a Ring opera.

Handel's Teseo brings 2018 London Handel Festival to a close

The 2018 London Handel Festival drew to a close with this vibrant and youthful performance (the second of two) at St George’s Church, Hanover Square, of Handel’s Teseo - the composer’s third opera for London after Rinaldo (1711) and Il pastor fido (1712), which was performed at least thirteen times between January and May 1713.

The Moderate Soprano

The Moderate Soprano and the story of Glyndebourne: love, opera and Nazism in David Hare’s moving play

The Spirit of England: the BBCSO mark the centenary of the end of the Great War

Well, it was Friday 13th. I returned home from this moving and inspiring British-themed concert at the Barbican Hall in which the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conductor Sir Andrew Davis had marked the centenary of the end of World War I, to turn on my lap-top and discover that the British Prime Minister had authorised UK armed forces to participate with French and US forces in attacks on Syrian chemical weapon sites.

Thomas Adès conducts Stravinsky's Perséphone at the Royal Festival Hall

This seemed a timely moment for a performance of Stravinsky’s choral ballet, Perséphone. April, Eliot’s ‘cruellest month’, has brought rather too many of Chaucer’s ‘sweet showers [to] pierce the ‘drought of March to the root’, but as the weather finally begins to warms and nature stirs, what better than the classical myth of the eponymous goddess’s rape by Pluto and subsequent rescue from Hades, begetting the eternal rotation of the seasons, to reassure us that winter is indeed over and the spirit of spring is engendering the earth.

Dido and Aeneas: La Nuova Musica at Wigmore Hall

This performance of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas by La Nuova Musica, directed by David Bates, was, characteristically for this ensemble, alert to musical details, vividly etched and imaginatively conceived.

Bernstein's MASS at the Royal Festival Hall

In 1969, Mrs Aristotle Onassis commissioned a major composition to celebrate the opening of a new arts centre in Washington, DC - the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, named after her late husband, President John F. Kennedy, who had been assassinated six years earlier.

Hans Werner Henze : The Raft of the Medusa, Amsterdam

This is a landmark production of Hans Werner Henze's Das Floß der Medusa (The Raft of the Medusa) conducted by Ingo Metzmacher in Amsterdam earlier this month, with Dale Duesing (Charon), Bo Skovhus and Lenneke Ruiten, with Cappella Amsterdam, the Nieuw Amsterdams Kinderen Jeugdkoor, and the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, in a powerfully perceptive staging by Romeo Castellucci.

Johann Sebastian Bach, St John Passion, BWV 245

This was the first time, I think, since having moved to London that I had attended a Bach Passion performance on Good Friday here.

Easter Voices, including mass settings by Mozart and Stravinsky

It was a little early, perhaps, to be hearing ‘Easter Voices’ in the middle of Holy Week. However, this was not especially an Easter programme – and, in any case, included two pieces from Gesualdo’s Tenebrae responsories for Good Friday. Given the continued vileness of the weather, a little foreshadowing of something warmer was in any case most welcome. (Yes, I know: I should hang my head in Lenten shame.)

Academy of Ancient Music: St John Passion at the Barbican Hall

‘In order to preserve the good order in the Churches, so arrange the music that it shall not last too long, and shall be of such nature as not to make an operatic impression, but rather incite the listeners to devotion.’

Fiona Shaw's The Marriage of Figaro returns to the London Coliseum

The white walls of designer Peter McKintosh’s Ikea-maze are still spinning, the ox-skulls are still louring, and the servants are still eavesdropping, as Fiona Shaw’s 2011 production of The Marriage of Figaro returns to English National Opera for its second revival. Or, perhaps one should say that the servants are still sleeping - slumped in corridors, snoozing in chairs, snuggled under work-tables - for at times this did seem a rather soporific Figaro under Martyn Brabbins’ baton.

Lenten Choral Music from the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge

Time was I could hear the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge almost any evening I chose, at least during term time. (If I remember correctly, Mondays were reserved for the mixed voice King’s Voices.)

A New Faust at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s innovative, new production of Charles Gounod’s Faust succeeds on multiple levels of musical and dramatic representation. The title role is sung by Benjamin Bernheim, his companion in adventure Méphistophélès is performed by Christian Van Horn.

Netrebko rules at the ROH in revival of Phyllida Lloyd's Macbeth

Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a play of the night: of dark interiors and shadowy forests. ‘Light thickens, and the crow/Makes wing to th’ rooky wood,’ says Macbeth, welcoming the darkness which, whether literal or figurative, is thrillingly and threateningly palpable.

San Diego’s Ravishing Florencia

Daniel Catán’s widely celebrated opera, Florencia en el Amazonas received a top tier production at the wholly rejuvenated San Diego Opera company.

Samantha Hankey wins Glyndebourne Opera Cup

Four singers were awarded prizes at the inaugural Glyndebourne Opera Cup, which reached its closing stage at Glyndebourne on 24th March. The Glyndebourne Opera Cup focuses on a different single composer or strand of the repertoire each time it is held. In 2018 the featured composer was Mozart and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment accompanied the ten finalists.

Handel's first 'Israelite oratorio': Esther at the London Handel Festival

It’s sometimes suggested that it was the simultaneous decline of the popularity of Italian opera seria among Georgian audiences and, in consequence, of the fortunes of Handel’s Royal Academy King’s Theatre, that led the composer to turn his hand to oratorio in English, the genre which would endear him to the hearts of the nation.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

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.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):