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.
Best of the season so far! William Christie and Les Arts Florissants performed Rameau Grand Motets at late night Prom 17. Perfection, as one would expect from arguably the finest Rameau interpreters in the business, and that's saying a lot, given the exceptionally high quality of French baroque performance in the last 40 years.
Twelve years after Opera Holland Park's first production of Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, the opera made a welcome return.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Richard Strauss may be most closely associated with the soprano voice but this recording of a selection of the composer’s lieder by baritone Thomas Hampson is a welcome reminder that the rapt lyricism of Strauss’s settings can be rendered with equal beauty and character by the low male voice.
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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?
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.