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.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
In 2015, Bampton Classical Opera’s production of Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio - a UK premiere - received well-deserved accolades: ‘a revelation ... the music is magnificent’ (Seen and Heard International), ‘giddily exciting, propelled by wit, charm and bags of joy’ (The Spectator), ‘lively, inventive ... a joy from start to finish’ (The Oxford Times), ‘They have done Salieri proud’ (The Arts Desk) and ‘an enthusiastic performance of riotously spirited music’ (Opera Britannia) were just some of the superlative compliments festooned by the critical press.
How many singers does it take to make an opera? There are single-role operas - Schönberg’s Erwartung (1924) and Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies (1969) spring immediately to mind - and there are operas that just require a pair of performers, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart i Salieri (1897) or The Telephone by Menotti (1947).
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
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.