25 Feb 2009
Frankfurt: Thinking Inside the Box
My heart didn't exactly leap in joyful anticipation as I entered the Frankfurt Opera and saw the Arabella pre-set on stage: a big, shallow, white box.
Wigmore Hall has announced the 25 young singer and pianist duos from around the world who have been shortlisted for this prestigious competition, which takes place at Wigmore Hall in September with the generous support of the Kohn Foundation. Details were announced on 27 April during a recital by Milan Siljanov, who won top prize in the 2015 Competition.
Garsington Opera's thrilling new commission for the 2017 Season, Silver Birch, will feature over 180 participants from the local community aged 8-80, including students from primary and secondary schools, members of the local military community, student Foley artists under the guidance of Pinewood Studios and members of Wycombe Women’s Aid.
Opera San Jose has capped a wholly winning season with an emotionally engaging, thrillingly sung, enticingly fresh rendition of Puccini’s immortal masterpiece La bohème.
On Saturday evening April 22, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at the Civic Theater. Director Marta Domingo updated the production from the constrictions of the nineteenth century to the freedom of the nineteen twenties. Violetta’s fellow courtesans and their dates wore fascinating outfits and, at one point, danced the Charleston to what looked like a jazz combo playing Verdi’s score.
Thomas Adès’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, is a dizzying, sometimes frightening, palimpsest of texts (literary and cinematic) and music, in which ceaseless repetitions of the past - inexact, ever varying, but inescapably compulsive - stultify the present and deny progress into the future. Paradoxically, there is endless movement within a constricting stasis. The essential elements collide in a surreal Sartrean dystopia: beasts of the earth (live sheep and a simulacra of a bear) roam, a disembodied hand floats through the air, water spouts from the floor and a burning cello provides the flames upon which to roast the sacrificial lambs. No wonder that when the elderly Doctor tries to restore order through scientific rationalism he is told, “We don't want reason! We want to get out of here!”
Is A Dog’s Heart even an opera? It is sung by opera singers to live music. Alexander Raskatov’s score, however, is secondary to the incredible stage visuals. Whatever it is, actor/director Simon McBurney’s first stab at opera is fantastic theatre. Its revival at Dutch National Opera, where it premiered in 2010, is hugely welcome.
In May 2016, Opera Rara gave Bellini aficionados a treat when they gave a concert performance of Vincenzo Bellini’s first opera, Adelson e Salvini, at the Barbican Hall. The preceding week had been spent in the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios, and this recording, released last month, is a very welcome addition to Opera Rara’s bel canto catalogue.
Jonas Kaufmann Mahler Das Lied von der Erde is utterly unique but also works surprisingly well as a musical experience. This won't appeal to superficial listeners, but will reward those who take Mahler seriously enough to value the challenge of new perspectives.
Following Garsington Opera for All’s successful second year of free public screenings on beaches, river banks and parks in isolated coastal and rural communities, Handel’s sparkling masterpiece Semele will be screened in four areas across the UK in 2017. Free events are programmed for Skegness (1 July), Ramsgate (22 July), Bridgwater (29 July) and Grimsby (11 October).
I kept hearing from knowledgeable opera fanatics that the Israeli Opera (IO) in Tel Aviv was a surprising sure bet. So I made my way to the Homeland to hear how supposedly great the quality of opera was. And man, I was in for treat.
At Phoenix’s Symphony Hall on Friday evening April 7, Arizona Opera offered its final presentation of the 2016-2017 season, Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola). The stars of the show were Daniela Mack as Cinderella, called Angelina in the opera, and Alek Shrader as Don Ramiro. Actually, Mack and Shrader are married couple who met singing these same roles at San Francisco Opera.
On Saturday evening April 1, 2017, Placido Domingo and Los Angeles Opera celebrated their tenth year of training young opera artists in the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Program. From the singing I heard, they definitely have something of which to be proud.
The Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden pretty much programs only big stars. A prime example was the Fall Festival this season. Grigory Sokolov opened with a piano recital, which I did not attend. I came for Cecilia Bartoli in Bellini’s Norma and Christian Gerhaher with Schubert’s Die Winterreise, and Anne-Sophie Mutter breathtakingly delivering Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Robin Ticciati, the ballerino conductor, is not my favorite, but together they certainly impressed in Mendelssohn.
Mahler as dramatist! Mahler Symphony no 8 with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Now we know why Mahler didn't write opera. His music is inherently theatrical, and his dramas lie not in narrative but in internal metaphysics. The Royal Festival Hall itself played a role, literally, since the singers moved round the performance space, making the music feel particularly fluid and dynamic. This was no ordinary concert.
Imagine a fête galante by Jean-Antoine Watteau brought to life, its colour and movement infusing a bucolic scene with charm and theatricality. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opéra-ballet Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques, is one such amorous pastoral allegory, its three entrées populated by shepherds and sylvans, real characters such as Sapho and mythological gods such as Mercury.
Details of the Royal Opera House's 2017/18 Season have been announced. Oliver Mears, who will begin his tenure as Director of Opera, comments: “I am delighted to introduce my first Season as Director of Opera for The Royal Opera House. As I begin this role, and as the world continues to reel from social and political tumult, it is reassuring to contemplate the talent and traditions that underpin this great building’s history. For centuries, a theatre on this site has welcomed all classes - even in times of revolution and war - to enjoy the most extraordinary combination of music and drama ever devised. Since the time of Handel, Covent Garden has been home to the most outstanding performers, composers and artists of every era. And for centuries, the joyous and often tragic art form of opera has offered a means by which we can be transported to another world, in all its wonderful excess and beauty.”
Whatever one’s own religious or spiritual beliefs, Bach’s St Matthew Passion is one of the most, perhaps the most, affecting depictions of the torturous final episodes of Jesus Christ’s mortal life on earth: simultaneously harrowing and beautiful, juxtaposing tender stillness with tragic urgency.
Lindy Hume’s sensational La bohème at the Berliner Staatsoper brings out the moxie in Puccini. Abdellah Lasri emerged as a stunning discovery. He floored me with his tenor voice through which he embodied a perfect Rodolfo.
Listening to Moritz Eggert’s Caliban is the equivalent of watching a flea-ridden dog chasing its own tail for one-and-half hours. It scratches, twitches and yelps. Occasionally, it blinks pleadingly, but you can’t bring yourself to care for such a foolish animal and its less-than-tragic plight.
A large audience packed into the Wigmore Hall to hear the two Baroque rarities featured in this melodious performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company. One was by the most distinguished ‘home-grown’ eighteenth-century musician, whose music - excepting some of the lively symphonies - remains seldom performed. The other was the work of a Saxon who - despite a few ups and downs in his relationship with the ‘natives’ - made London his home for forty-five years and invented that so English of genres, the dramatic oratorio.
My heart didn't exactly leap in joyful anticipation as I entered the Frankfurt Opera and saw the Arabella pre-set on stage: a big, shallow, white box.
In fact I thought, “oh darn (or some such expletive), here’s yet another big, shallow, white box.” Is there any veteran opera-goer in Europe that at one time (or many) hasn’t felt that same way? C’mon, ‘fess up. Ya know ya have. (Even though designers may try to mix it up once in a while by using a big…black… box.)
Anyhow, without wishing to prejudge Herbert Murauer’s set design as Euro-cliché, I settled in to observe what promised to be a good cast, a fine conductor, and one Germany’s top companies get about their Straussian business. My optimism what somewhat short-lived, at least visually. For the white panels backing the shallow box slid open to reveal another shallow, down-at-heel hotel room, nearly empty of furniture save a few straight back chairs. A lamp had lost its table and was plopped on the floor. Makeshift black cloths covered the windows, straining like a skirt that is too short. The dingy, cramped foyer would surely have scared off any of Arabella’s suitors before they even crossed the threshold. It was not incorrect, to be sure, just, well…depressed. And depressing.
The panels did some premeditated sliding around, aided by the back and forth linear movement of the entire shallow hotel suite, revealing one half of the room, then the other, then another “zwischenzimmer,” and finally Arabella’s denuded bedroom (which still had plenty of clothes in the closet, however). Oh, and at one point revealing the scrambling stage right crew, as a chunk of wall detached and revealed them in what was clearly an unplanned effect. I wish that I could say that any of these “reveals’ were, well, revelatory. But there did not seem to be a rhyme or reason to the bits and bobs we were allowed to see at any given time, nor was any one composition of them artistically very interesting.
Act II’s party scene initially promised more, but once past the pleasant look of the beige marble stairs and the crystal chandelier over the landing, the long brown rectangular settees became monochromatic and, even with the subsequent rolling discovery of the men’s toilet (ooooh, Matteo threatens to off himself with a pistol in the loo!), the sliding panels kept gliding tediously past set parts we were long since tired of seeing. Not to mention the chandelier became a distraction, with its crystals vibrating as the set crept around. The eternal white box framing the extreme front of the stage became a sort of DMZ, a no man’s land into which soloists advanced to, what, ruminate? Isolate? Fixate? Hard to know.
The spatial relationships created by this dichotomy of playing areas were suspect, and there was not a discernible consistency in their uses incorporated into Christof Loy’s variable stage direction. Character relationships were seriously stunted by having the cast as poseurs sing through the fourth wall straight at us, witness Arabella doing just that, as the text has her “seeing things” out the window she is clearly nowhere near. One thing to be said for the Frankfurt stage: it must be wider than New Jersey since these scenic configurations seesawed back and forth, and once, disappeared into the wings in one entire piece, leaving one white panel backing Arabella at Act’s end, with a vast void of blackness behind her from which Zdenka appears.
Britta Stallmeister (Zdenka), Richard Cox (Matteo)
Mr. Loy had Arabella enter, elegantly attired in a black dress and fur (Mr. Murauer’s costumes were characterful and appealing), and so far so good. But then the quirks began in earnest. She unceremoniously dumped Matteo’s gift of roses onto the floor of the “box,” only to later kneel and fuss unduly over them, finally putting one rose in her teeth as she flirted with Elemer, who ended flat on his back on the box floor for some reason. Arabella briefly stood straddling him, then as she walked away he picked at the hem of her skirt which he tried to sneak a peek up. Hmmm.
The miscalculation of behavior inappropriate to the piece escalated in Act II, when the duped dope Mandryka appeared to physically and sexually abuse poor Fiakermilli by roughly manhandling her. Indeed, if the physical struggling and shading of her coloratura shrieks were any indication, he seemed to have been digitally violating her from behind. As Adelaide (Arabella’s Mother) expressed shock at his behavior, he similarly grabbed mom’s bottom, a gesture so extremely improper it would seem to have rendered the entire rest of the plot’s progression implausible.
The whole concept of Fasching-bored tuxedo-ed and gowned young people plopping on the ante chamber steps and settees, getting progressively more wasted, and winding up like a trash pile of upscale Woodstockers littering the stairs, grew more and more predictably glum. This is Loy’s invention, not Strauss’s.
There were compensations to be sure, not least of which was clean ensemble playing from the Frankfurt Museum Orchestra. I wish the acoustics of the house were not so dry, for the virtuosic solo passages remained a bit earthbound. Nor did the lush “tutti” passages meld as creamily as they might have, resulting in a rather generalized sound that more often than not lacked frisson.
Nevertheless, the pit had a very good evening overall, and Sebastian Weigle exerted a firm stylistic hand, shaping a sensitive and well-shaped reading. Musical highlights included the ravishing Act I duet from Arabella and Zdenka (does this ever miss?), Mandryka’s duet with the heroine in Act II, and most especially, the closing scene of reconciliation.
Anne Schwanewilms (Arabella) is deservedly making quite a career as a Strauss soprano, witness her hugely successful house debut as the Marschallin in a season past at Lyric Opera of Chicago. I also caught her phenomenal Marie in Santa Fe’s “Wozzeck” and was captivated by her theatrics, beauty of voice, and sound musical instincts.
On this occasion however, I found the talented Ms. Schwanewilms too-often cooing “preciously,” variously cradling and weighting syllables as if they were somehow unconnected, and breaking up the musical line. Her high notes were usually spot on and luminously spinning, but sometimes got a wee bit tight and, sorry Anne, just a wee bit sharp. On occasions when the band was very soft (or silent) her cinema-subtle, conversational delivery could be just breath taking. But too often we were “reading” her performance via the surtitles for lack of oomph in her projection. (Not just me, Germans all around me were looking up at the words, instead of watching our diva sing them).
As Mama Rose might exhort: “Sing out, Arabella!”
A solid-voiced Mandryka, Robert Hayward seemed to spend the first act singing Jokanaan, so apocryphal was his delivery. What might work as a pontificating prophet, seemed a tad overbearing here, even for a hectoring prat like Mandryka. His performance grew much subtler overall in Two, until he morphed into Baron Ochs for the distasteful revenge flirtation with Fiakermilli. However, Mr. Hayward possesses an impressive, full-bodied bass baritone, with a few high notes “negotiated,” but all securely achieved.
Britta Stallmeister’s Zdenka is a slip of a girl with a big, penetrating voice that is even throughout her considerable range. She does seem to push too hard at big musical moments, occasionally displaying a wobble that is alarming in one so young. Mama Rose again: “Don’t sing out, Zdenka!” A little restraint should correct this minor quibble. Her characterization and physique du role were perfection.
I quite enjoyed Susanne Elmark’s turn as Fiakermilli. Can anyone, even the great Dessay, truly make this troublesome, gratuitous role work? For her part, Ms. Elmark hit all the notes securely, with a pretty, flutey delivery. Having “exhausted herself” threatening the male chorus with a riding crop like a faux X-Tube posting, she characterized all the cadenza licks as hyperventilated releases. Hey, it worked. And the lovely Susanne was blond, slim, pretty, in white lace up boots, a multi-colored bodice, voluminous white skirt dotted with flowers, and white hat and gloves. She dominated the stage in her every appearance with an assured star presence and vibrant impersonation.
I have long admired veteran soprano Helena Doese, on the Frankfurt roster for many years. Her voice does not have the youthful sheen and power of old, it is true, especially in the lower reaches, but she lacks nothing in characterization and makes a substantial contribution as Arabella’s Mother. Alfred Reiter makes the most of his stage time with a secure assumption of the heroine’s dad, Graf Waldner. Richard Cox was an excellent Matteo, clear of voice and inventively dramatic. So too, Peter Marsh’s lively, well-sung Count Elemer was a joy that consistently brightened the proceedings. Barbara Zechmeister made a good, if brief, impression as the Fortune Teller in the opera’s opening bars.
By evening’s end, the Konzept may never have gotten any clearer, nor the design any more interesting, but the many aural delights wrought by an A-list cast, conductor, and a finely tuned chorus and orchestra provided enough pleasure “inside the box” to make for quite a pleasant evening at Frankfurt’s Arabella.