21 Jul 2009
A knock-out Ariadne auf Naxos at Munich’s Bavarian State Opera Festival
There are rare times when a critic can just enjoy, and say “Wow!”
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.
I had last seen Arabella as part of the Munich Opera Festival’s Richard Strauss Week in 2008. It is not, I am afraid, my favourite Strauss opera; in fact, it is probably my least favourite. However, I am always willing to be convinced.
Some time ago in San Francisco there was an Aida starring Luciano Pavarotti, now in Orange it was Carmen starring Jonas Kaufmann. No, not tenors in drag just great tenors whose names simply outshine the title roles.
There are rare times when a critic can just enjoy, and say “Wow!”
The lucky audience at the Bavarian State Opera Festival’s Ariadne auf Naxos was witness to one of the most remarkably fluid and fun performances of this Richard Strauss work it has been my pleasure to see. The quirky production, every member of the cast — even deeply into the smallest roles — the conductor and the orchestra, all were of a single mind, and all at the top of their game. The result was total, unalloyed delight. It doesn’t get better than this.
From the very beginning, with dozens of mirrors wheeled on to the empty black stage, their reflections and changing placement instantly fracturing the stage focus into kaleidoscopically reconfigured crystalline structures — not unlike in the celebrated climax of Orson Welles’ classic film “Lady from Shanghai,” a chase set in a fun-house of mirrors — this genius production by Robert Carsen beautifully embodied the Hoffmanstahl/Strauss conceit of irrationally mixing up two disparate genres. If perhaps there was one too many upright pianos wheeled onstage here, or an occasional longeur there, these were minor cavils when the whole is such a beautifully realized directorial high-wire act. If theater is just smoke and mirrors, Carsen managed it brilliantly with barely more than the latter.
Scene from Ariadne auf Naxos with Diana Damrau as Zerbinetta in the foreground
The audience’s darling, as it should be, was the Zerbinetta of Diana Damrau, who proved capable of an astonishing range of physical acting, vocal pyrotechnics, and plain delight throughout the performance. Her red high heels came on and off with aplomb as she negotiated the virtuoso demands of the part and the production. She presents herself with a freshness and seemingly off-the-cuff decisions that are nothing short of daringly breathtaking. Even the most strenuous episodes came off with an irrepressible naturalness which is the opposite of studied. One hardly knows what to praise more, her musicianship or her acting — but the two cannot be separated. They form a seamless wonder, with or without those red high-heels.
But Damrau was hardly alone in this deep cast of talented artists. Each contributed his or her more than considerable best. Primadonna/Ariadne, Adrianne Pieczonka and Composer Daniela Sindram were also as magnificent in their fiery roles, and gave no grounds for anything other than complete admiration. Everyone in the cast made the most of their moments to shine. Martin Gantner (Musiklehrer) was suitably aggrieved. Burkhard Fritz was an outstanding Tenor/Bacchus. Nikolay Brochev (Harlequin), Ulrich Ress (Scaramuccio), Steven Humes (Truffaldin), Kevin Conners (Brighella), Christian Rieger (Lakai), Guy de Mey (Tanzmeister), Kenneth Robertson (Offizier), Aga Mikolaj (Najade), Nicole Piccolomini (Dryade), Sine Bundgaard (Echo) were all excellent. Todd Boyce, who two nights before had been one of the clown-chorus of Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti, here was an amusing Wigmaker. Non-singing actor Johannes Klama was a most officious Haushofmeister. Bravi tutti.Scene from Ariadne auf Naxos with Adrianne Pieczonka as the Primadonna in foreground
Under the baton of Bertrand de Billy, he Bavarian State Opera Orchestra did itself more than proud, effortlessly supporting the singers and the stage action. All played exquisitely, with verve and delightful, drawing exquisite colors out of this perversely refined yet tatterdemalion score, wheezing harmonium included.
My one and only complaint is the lack of intermission between Vorspiel and “opera” proper, especially since the wooden seats of the Bayreuth-like Prinzregenten Theater begin to test the physical limits of the audience for such a long period, reminding one why German, apparently alone among languages, has that particular word Sitzfleisch, or sitting endurance. But more importantly, a toast would have been welcome for such a bravura display of artistry before plunging into the “performance” proper, It also forced the Composer in this production to spend the second half of the work standing mute at the foot of the stage among the audience, looking on. A missed opportunity for the audience to collectively celebrate their great good luck to be able to witness such a marvelous, dizzyingly witty and rich realization of this complex work.Daniela Sindram as Der Komponist
The performance took place in the Bayreuth-like art-deco Prinzregenten Theater, the middle-sized of the Bavarian State Opera’s three opera houses, located by Munich’s Isar river.
Raphael Mostel © 2009