11 Nov 2009
Lohengrin in Houston: A long-awaited return
Wagner was last on stage in Houston’s Wortham Theater Center in 2001, when the Houston Grand Opera staged Tannhäuser.
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.
Wagner was last on stage in Houston’s Wortham Theater Center in 2001, when the Houston Grand Opera staged Tannhäuser.
That production brought down the curtain on a decade that was a Golden Age for German opera at the HGO. During the previous dozen years Wagner was on stage at the Wortham in nine seasons and Richard Strauss in two.
There was a reason for this richness — and for the dearth that followed. Those were the banner years when Christoph Eschenbach was music director of the Houston Symphony. Not only did he conduct Wagner and Strauss at the HGO; he brought his orchestra into the pit at the Wortham for these performances. Years of transition followed that marked a period of maturation for both the HGO and the HSO. As they grew in quality and significance, the Opera was challenged to build its own ensemble.
Thus the production of Lohengrin that opened at the Wortham on November 30 was not only a “long-awaited return,” as HGO music director Patrick Summers described it in an erudite note in the Lohengrin program. It was further a milestone in the history of the company and in the career of Summers, HGO music director since 1989.
It was to Summers that the building of an opera orchestra was assigned, and — as was gloriously apparent in the new Lohengrin — he has done this with impressive success. Indeed, the hushed celestial silver of the violins that opens the Overture shimmered in warmth as they ascended to the unashamedly erotic heights that launch the first act of the work.
The profound feeling that Summers brought to the Overture and all that followed made it difficult to believe that this was the first complete Wagner opera that he has conducted. All this distinguished this new Lohengrin as a turning point in the history of the 54-year-old HGO. Evaluation of the production itself is a more difficult matter.
This was also the first Wagner for director Daniel Slater and designer Robert Innes Hopkins and one can only wish that their work had been on the same level as Summer’s achievement with the orchestra. Such — alas — was not the case. The two badly overshot their mark in an arsenal of effects the sum of which was far less than their collected value.
In this co-production with Switzerland’s Grand Théâtre de Genève, where the staging debuted in 2007, the British collaborators were perhaps a bit too eager to try their hand at what is known on the continent as Regieoper, the approach that allows the production team free rein in the liberties it takes with what the composer once regarded as a finished work. (The result is often summed up as “Eurotrash.”) Gone — along with the traditional swan — was the knightly medievalism that is traditionally the historic background of Lohengrin.
Simon O’Neill (Lohengrin) and Adrianne Pieczonka (Elsa)
Act One opened in a cavernous library, obviously long neglected. Uniforms — for those old enough to remember them — recalled Eastern Europe in its totalitarian bad days. Things get worse as troops viciously tore books from shelves, recalling — again for those with knowledge of early 20th-century history — the Nazi book burning in Berlin when Hitler came to power. (That conflagration was staged, incidentally, on the square adjacent to the Staatsoper on historic Unter den Linden.)
Simon O’Neill, whose grubby dress, hair and demeanor bore little resemblance to the man in shining armor that Lohengrin, this Knight of the Grail, is supposed to be. O’Neill was vocally disappointing as well, for — although his voice is of some power — it lacks warmth and shading. Indeed, his performance was largely monochromatic.
The Elsa was Canada’s Adrianne Pieczonka, praised throughout Europe today for her interpretation of the women created by Wagner and Richard Strauss. In Act One Pieczonka’s voice seemed a trifle two mature for innocent Elsa, but in Act Two she was a perfect match for Christine Goerke, whose Ortrud was the glory of this staging.
Although Goerke, long an established Wagnerian, might have sued designer Hopkins for the dreadful green cocktail dress in which she first appeared, she soon proved herself the strongest member of this cast, stressing that behind every evil man there is an even more evil woman.
Richard Paul Fink (Friedrich of Telramund) and Christine Goerke (Ortrud)
Richard Paul Fink, long the world’s most sinister Alberich in Wagner’s Ring and the creator of Mephistophelean Edward Teller in John Adams’ Doctor Atomic, was a natural as Ortrud’s partner in malice. However, one expected a more significant voice than bass Günther Groissbock brought to King Heinrich. Supporting roles were impressively sung by HGO studio artists.
Lohengrin contains Wagner’s greatest choruses, and HGO chorus master Richard Bado brought home that no American company has a better choral ensemble than Houston. Although the ludicrous aspects of the staging did not necessary detract from the musical excellence of the production, a concert performance by Summers and his forces would have been more satisfactory. The good news associated with this production is that the HGO henceforth promises a German opera — Wagner, Strauss or Beethoven — in each future season.
“Now,” Summers concludes, “HGO rejoins a perpetual journey into one of history’s true, if disquieting visionaries.”