23 Aug 2009
Wagner's Tannhaüser at the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden
Good directors don't always create good 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’.
Good directors don't always create good productions.
Nikolaus Lehnhoff proved with his staging of Parsifal, preserved on DVD, that he can stay true to the core vision of a Wagner masterwork and yet bring new insights and a stark yet imaginative vision to the work. This Tannhaüser, filmed in 2008 in Baden-Baden, comes across as an over-designed, under-realized concept. Although the bonus feature of an hour-long documentary has a lot of talk - oh boy, does it ever - none of it really serves to make the production’s intents any clearer. The sets, the costumes, the lighting, are all spectacular. The viewer can admire all that effort and still feel unsatisfied, because the tone never becomes coherent. Does Lehnhoff see the opera as essentially silly? That nagging thought is the chief one his staging produced in your reviewer.
A huge spiral staircase/walkway dominates the set, the curve of which has a seductive, feminine shape. Waltraud Meier as Venus appears in the shadow of the curve, at first immobile in a huge hoop-skirt ballgown, and then stepping away from it in a more shapely black dress. The ballet almost never really works to suggest the erotic appeal of Venusberg, but Lehnhoff gets off to a very bad start here. In the choreography of Amir Hosseinpour and Jonathan Lunn, dancers in clunky, head-to-toe white leotards mime the wriggling movements of worms or maggots. It’s silly when not repellent. And the worms turn up again at the end, of course, to spoil one of the more successful scenes of the production.
With a full head of shaggy hair and looking a little like a 1980s’ Bono of the rock band U2, Robert Gambill enters. In a role known as a tenor-killer, Gambill offers a lot. He doesn’t seem to tire, and his enunciation of the text struck this non-German speaker as sharp. The core of Gambill’s voice is a husky, masculine sound, with an effective if strained top. He doesn’t really have either the vocal or personal charisma for a memorable assumption of the horny hero, but Gambill is about as good as we’ve got at this time.
Only a few months before this summer 2008 production, Gambill had been in the same opera with Camila Nylund as Elisabeth in San Diego, where your reviewer caught their performances. Nylund is a gorgeous woman, visually perfect as Elisabeth (but even more stunning when seen in street clothes in the aforementioned documentary). She can sing her role, as Gambill can sing his. It’s just the lack of any special color or imagination to her phrasing that keeps her assumption from affecting the audience as it should. At least she doesn’t have to endure the wig catastrophe that Meier does as Venus, with a weird fan-shaped hedge of hair across the top of her skull. Lehnhoff relies on Meier’s considerable dramatic reserves to put her characterization across, but he gives her very little to do. Even when outside the prison of that satin gown, Meier seems locked away.
In Wartburg things get very goofy. Most of the men wear gold lamé suits, while the chorus enters in black suits and helmets with short antlers, or are they insect antennae? When the song contest begins, the contestants stride onto a platform with a standing microphone, strutting and posturing like rock stars. Tom Fox as Biterolf really gets into it. But when Gambill’s Tannhaüser rushes up, shoves Fox off the stage and sings in praise of Venusberg, Lehnhoff’s interpretation makes him look like a spoiled, bratty jock. There’s no interest in his redemption from that point. If we still care about Nylund’s Elisabeth, that is due to the commendable efforts of Roman Trekel as Wolfram and Stephen Milling as Hermann, two first-class singers who manage to preserve their dignity amidst the silliness.
One of several hundred young conductors making their names known today, Philippe Jordan leads the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin in a technically precise but soulless reading. He has more interesting things to say about the music in the documentary than can be heard in the actual performance.
The booklet does feature a very fine essay by Reiner E. Moritz, who covers the opera’s creation cogently and also finds ways of describing this production that make it sound better than it turns out to be. But where in the booklet essay is the credit for the wig stylist? The documentary interviews reveal that both Gambill and Trekel got the benefit of that artist’s best work. Meier, unfortunately, did not.
Finally, if a production goes for the non-traditional approach as this one does, then the subtitles shouldn’t be as fussy and outdated as those employed here. A lot of creative energy went into this production. In the end, it comes across as all design, no depth.