Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Adriana Lecouvreur Opera Holland Park

Twelve years after Opera Holland Park's first production of Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, the opera made a welcome return.

Back to the Beginnings: Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria at Iford Opera.

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.

Schoenberg : Moses und Aron, Welsh National Opera, London

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.

Rossini is Alive and Well and Living in Iowa

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.

Gergiev : Janáček Glagolitic Mass, BBC Proms

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.

Donizetti and Mozart, Jette Parker Young Artists Royal Opera House, London

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.

Glyndebourne's Strauss Der Rosenkavalier, BBC Proms

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.

Il turco in Italia at the Aix Festival

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.

First Night of the BBC Proms : Elgar The Kingdom

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.

Le nozze di Figaro, Munich

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.

Winterreise and Trauernacht at the Aix Festival

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.

James Gilchrist at Wigmore Hall

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: Improvisations on Henry Purcell

‘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.

Nabucco at Orange

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.

Saint Louis: A Hit is a Hit is a Hit

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.

La Flûte Enchantée (2e Acte)
at the Aix Festival

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.

Ariodante at the Aix Festival

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.

Lucy Crowe, Wigmore Hall

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.

The Turn of the Screw, Holland Park

‘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.

Plenty of Va-Va-Vroom: La Fille du Regiment, Iford

It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?

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):