29 Aug 2008
Wagnerian Score: Music 10; Drama 1
The venerable Wagner Festival in Bayreuth has never shied away from provocative productions.
It is twenty-three years since Rossini’s opera of cultural oppression, inspiring heroism and tender pathos was last seen on the Covent Garden stage, but this eagerly awaited new production of Guillaume Tell by Italian director Damiano Micheletto will be remembered more for the audience outrage and vociferous mid-performance booing that it provoked — the most persistent and strident that I have heard in this house — than for its dramatic, visual or musical impact.
With its outrageous staging demands, you sometimes wonder why opera companies want to produce Verdi’s Aida. But the piece is about far more than pharaohs, pyramids and camels.
Given the enduring resonance and impact of the magnificent visual aesthetic of Visconti’s 1971 film of Thomas Mann’s novella, opera directors might be forgiven for concluding that Britten’s Death in Venice does not warrant experimentation with period and design, and for playing safe with Edwardian elegance, sweeping Venetian vistas and stylised seascapes.
If La Rondine (The Swallow) is a less-admired work than rest of the mature Puccini canon, you wouldn’t have known it by the lavish production now lovingly staged by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.
Few companies have championed new or neglected works quite as fervently and consistently as the industrious Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.
For Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, “everything old is new again.”
Why would an American opera company devote its resources to the premiere of an opera by an Italian composer? Furthermore a parochially Italian story?
Berlioz’ Les Troyens is in two massive parts — La prise de Troy and Troyens à Carthage.
On Saturday evening June 13, 2015, Los Angeles Opera presented Dog Days, a new opera with music by David T. Little and a text by Royce Vavrek. In the opera adopted from a story of the same name by Judy Budnitz, thirteen-year-old Lisa tells of her family’s mental and physical disintegration resulting from the ravages of a horrendous war.
Audiences at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan first saw Madama Butterfly on February 17, 1904. It was not the success it is these days, and Puccini revised it before its scheduled performances in Brescia.
Opera Philadelphia is a very well-managed opera company with a great vision. Every year it presents a number of well-known “warhorse” operas, usually in the venerable Academy of Music, and a few more adventurous productions, usually in a chamber opera format suited to the smaller Pearlman Theater.
Written in 1783, Giovanni Paisiello’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia reigned for three decades as one of Europe’s most popular operas, before being overshadowed forever by Rossini’s classic work.
The Princeton Festival has established a reputation for high-quality summer opera. In recent years works by Handel, Britten, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Wagner and Gershwin have been performed at Matthews Theater on Princeton University campus: a 1100-seat auditorium with good sight-lines though a somewhat dry and uneven acoustic.
Die Entführung aus dem Serail was Mozart’s ﬁrst great public success in Vienna, and it became the composer’s most oft performed opera during his lifetime.
The Ensemble for the Romantic Century offered a thoughtful and well-curated evening in their production of The Sorrows of Young Werther, which is part theatrical performance and part art song concert.
This was an adventurous double bill of two ‘quasi-operas’ by Hans Werner Henze, performed by young singers who are studying on the postgraduate Opera Course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
High brick walls, a cavernous space, entered via a narrow passage just off a London thoroughfare: Village Underground in Shoreditch is probably not that far removed from the venue in which Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas was first performed — whether that was Josiah Priest’s girl’s school in Chelsea or the court of Charles II or James II.
Hats off to Garsington for championing once again some criminally neglected Strauss. I overheard someone there opine, ‘Of course, you can understand why it isn’t done very often.’
Mozart and Da Ponte’s Cosi fan tutte provides little in the way of background or back story for the plot, thus allowing directors to set the piece in a variety settings.
Based on a play, Chrysomania (The Passion for Money), by the Russian playwright Prince Alexander Shokhovskoy, Pushkin’s short story The Queen of Spades is, in the words of one literary critic, ‘a sardonic commentary on the human condition’.
The venerable Wagner Festival in Bayreuth has never shied away from provocative productions.
Despite the sometimes vociferous booing and hooting of “offending” production teams, year after year, show after show, the damn thing still sells out. So, either somebody likes this artistic philosophy, or perhaps hope springs eternal that somehow, sometime, something, no matter how weird, will actually “land” and illuminate a familiar piece with a fresh perspective. Let’s dispatch the bad news up front:
Director Christoph Marthaler’s “take” on Tristan und Isolde was more of a “took.” Or was it that we were being “taken”? Whatever the conjugation, his is a bare bones, stylized, confusing mounting that is quite bereft of engaging theatrical values. Or even sensible story telling of the “conjugation” of two of opera’s most complex and deeply felt characterizations. At least he had his remarkable soloists often iconically singing full front to maximum advantage, although that usually did pretty much negate any relationships developing.
Mr. Marthaler was abetted by the ugliest costume and set designs I ever hope to see from Anna Viebrock. Remember that name. And avoid it if possible. In fairness, she wins awards. She works a lot. But on the basis of this mess of a visually dreary “Konzept,” it beats me why. Act One’s ship deck was more a Bauernhof-as-waiting-room with scattered overstuffed chairs among overturned, well. . .lawn chairs I guess is the best description. The Sailor and Isolde are discovered hidden seated in the comfy seats, and the “open sky” above is hung with gently shifting and sputtering fluorescent light circles as “stars” (one guesses).
The generally murky lighting gradually (finally) gets bright enough to see that our Isolde is really a quite lovely woman, albeit gowned in a drab garment that is unflatteringly belted at the hips. Kurwenal is in a kilt, Brangaene in a plaid skirt and burgundy sweater. A cursing, agitated Isolde angrily overturned all the lawn chairs that were not already downed. Brangaene having subsequently righted them all, Isolde again deliberately put every last blessed one of them on their side when Tristan entered got up in some preppy blue blazer outfit that makes him look, not old, but too old for Buster Brown. Before the Sailor exited, he and Kurwenal faced front at separate upstage locations and played patty-cake in the air as the Sailor sang. (Are you following any of this?)
For Act Two, a layer of institutional walls had been placed under the ersatz farmer’’s courtyard of Act One which had been jacked up one story in the air. The fluorescent circles were back as proper light fixtures (one guesses) and Isolde spent the first part of the act sparring with Brangaenee as she threatened to turn off the lights via modern day wall switches. When she finally plunged the stage into darkness, it took a long. . .long. . .long time before we got enough light restored to see the lovers. The great love duet was mostly played on and around a silly gold Naugahyde double seater center stage, straight out of your doctor’s waiting room, and the only set piece in the entire empty space.
At one point, for no apparent reason, Kurwenal oh-so-slowly wandered the perimeter of the enclosing box set, touching the walls and looking at them with such intense concentration as if to wish to discover something. (Perhaps a cogent staging idea?) Once the pair were interrupted, the odd overhead light started flickering, with only Isolde noticing, daftly lying on her back and pointing at the stuttering fixtures. The stabbing of Tristan with what appeared to be a switchblade was particularly clumsy. And once Mister “T” impaled himself, damn if Melot did not really get into it, and violently stabbed the hell out our hero until he really seemed quite dead. Act Two closed then with Tristan-as-“door- nail.” Hmmmm, where to go with Act Three? How about “nowhere”?
Another layer of walls (“Dungeon”? “Catacomb?”) had been added to the mix so we now had all three unattractive sets on display for the price of one. Tristan was lying in state on a modern hospital bed on a slightly elevated platform, enclosed by a waist high brass railing. Think Lenin’s tomb. In fact, a line of lower-middle class men in work clothes filed past to view it. Servants? Friends? The Grey Line Tour? Who knows?
Kurwenal had aged noticeably, and now doddered around on wobbly legs. And he repeatedly traversed the perimeter of the railing. Oh, and once, in a demented flash-back moment, he played patty-cake with the air again, oh-so-briefly. (“Man, those were the good old days in Act One. Patty cake and potions.”). The fluorescent circles were hanging on bars on the walls now, occasionally flickering and trying to come to life, but really quite out of service. The electric bill had come due.
Oh sure, “T” finally died and “I” finally arrived, although she was attired in a trench coat over slacks and a blouse, and sort of strutted around with her hands in her pockets, not caring about her dead lover all too very much. The other soloists had wandered on, too, and ended up in various stage positions with backs to us, facing the wall like school kids being punished.
The sublime Love Death culminated with Isolde taking Tristan’s place on the hospital bed and pulling the sheet up over her expiring body, leaving us with a final image worthy of “CSI: Singing Victims Unit.” This was shabby, willful, inexcusable stage-craft- without-the-“craft.”
But. . .the ridiculous was thankfully compensated by the sublime, for this was the most persuasive musical performance I have yet heard of this masterpiece. Peter Schneider led a magnificent, expansive, rhapsodic reading with an orchestra that was in festival form. At the top, the elusive opening phrases may have seemed to be a bit fragmentary, more stand-alone than rhythmically connected, but once past those first few bars, there was an inevitably in the unfolding phrasings, and a passionate forward propulsion that never let up.
The love recognition after the potion has been drunk has never moved me more, and the opening bars of Act Three were brutally painful. The covered pit may not be to all tastes. It is true that some sharpness of detail in the winds and, especially, the brass are inevitable, but the gains in terms of a blended sound are significant. I had wished that the brass off stage at the end of Act One had not been prematurely muted by the curtain fall. And while I did find the odd moment when I thought that the estimable maestro might have showed more restraint when his soloists were dipping into lower registers, Mr. Schneider’s was nonetheless a memorable achievement.
And it would be difficult to field a better ensemble of soloists from among current interpreters. It is hard to believe that Swedish soprano Iréne Theorin was making her role debut as Isolde, so vocally persuasive was she. There are other ladies voicing it as well, to be sure, but Ms. Theorin found a good deal more nuance and variety of utterance than any other I have heard. If you could listen to her dramatic understanding and her fearless use of pauses in some some of the brief unaccompanied bars alone, you would immediately know just how much she “gets it.” She can ride the orchestra, 0most usually with thrilling results, but it is her meaningful communication of the text that won me over so totally. I wished sometimes that she would not over-shoot impassioned leaps to pulverizing high notes, but that seems to be standard issue these days. Suffice it to say hers is a remarkable talent.
No less so was her Tristan, Robert Dean Smith. While this is not a weighty sounding voice, it is the clearest, cleanest vocal production of any interpreter in my experience. I never once felt that he was past his limit, and although I don’t think he had any more to give, what he presented was right on the money, bright and focused, and of a good presence in relationship to the band. He, too, invested his lines with meaning and comprehension. His long death scene was solid and varied, far from the more usual “hope-I-make-it-to-the-end” rendition.
Michelle Breedt scored a big success with the public as Brangaene. But while I always enjoy this fine singer, and while she performed it very very well, I wasn’t sure she had completely mastered this curious and demanding role. She was assuredly not helped by the unimaginative direction she was given (or not given). Jukka Rasilainen was just a tremendous “Kurwenal.” His stentorian, emotionally rich declamations in Act Three zinged off the back wall like laser beams. What a horn! Powerful portrayal. Also fine was the orotund and commanding King Marke from veteran bass Robert Holl. Ralf Lukas made the most of Melot’s small role, and the fresh-voice Clemens Bieber did commendable duty as the Sailor.
Given these triumphant musical values, more’s the pity then that the theatrical side of this mounting was so wanting, with Richard Wagner’s concept of Gesamtkunstwerk (“integrated,” or “complete artwork”) little in evidence. How do producers rationalize “integrating” such astounding musical accomplishments with the deplorable visuals on display? How?
We should be thankful that the Festspielhaus is way up the Green Hill, some distance from Wahnfried, Wagner’s final home and resting place. While we had to suffer through Marthaler’s and Viebrock’s distractions, at least we were spared the ultimate distraction of the scraping sound of Richard turning over in his grave.