04 Feb 2010
Heidelberg’s Stumbling Spartaco at Schwetzingen Castle
For those who might be seeking a representational tale of the legendary Roman slave Spartacus, well, Gladiator this ain’t.
Thomas Larcher’s Second Symphony (written 2015-16) here received its United Kingdom premiere, its first performance having been given by the Vienna Philharmonic and Semyon Bychkov in June this year. A commission from the Austrian National Bank for its bicentenary, it is nevertheless not a celebratory work, instead commemorating those refugees who have met their deaths in the Mediterranean Sea, ‘expressing grief over those who have died and outrage at the misanthropy at home in Austria and elsewhere’.
One of the initiatives for the community at the Lucerne Festival is the ‘40 min’ series. A free concert given before the evening’s main event that ranges from chamber music to orchestral rehearsals.
The mysteries and myths surrounding Mozart’s Requiem Mass - left unfinished at his death and completed by his pupil, Franz Xaver Süssmayr - abide, reinvigorated and prolonged by Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus as directed on film by Miloš Forman. The origins of the work’s commission and composition remain unknown but in our collective cultural and musical consciousness the Requiem has come to assume an autobiographical role: as if Mozart was composing a mass for his own presaged death.
I saw two operas consecutively at Oper Koln. First, the utterly bewildering Lucia di Lammermoor; then Thilo Reinhardt’s thrilling Tosca. His staging was pure operatic joy with some Hitchcockian provocations.
Bernard Haitink’s monumental Bruckner and Mahler performances with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (RCO) got me hooked on classical music. His legendary performance of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8 in C-minor, where in the Finale loosened plaster fell from the Concertgebouw ceiling, is still recounted in Amsterdam.
Karita Mattila was born to sing Emilia Marty, the diva around whom revolves Leoš Janáček's The Makropulos Affair (Věc Makropulos). At Prom 45, she shone all the more because she was conducted by Jirí Belohlávek and performed alongside a superb cast from the National Theatre, Prague, probably the finest and most idiomatic exponents of this repertoire.
‘Two outrageous operas in one crazy evening,’ reads the bill. Hyperbole? Certainly not when the operas are two of Jacques Offenbach’s more off-the-wall bouffoneries and when the company is Opera della Luna whose artistic director, Jeff Clarke, is blessed with the comic imagination and theatrical nous to turn even the most vacuous trivia into a sharp and sassy riotous romp.
This performance of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream at Glyndebourne was so good that it was the highlight of the whole season, making the term ‘revival’ utterly irrelevant. Jakub Hrůša is always stimulating, but on this occasion, his conducting was so inspired that I found myself closing my eyes in order to concentrate on what he revealed in Britten's quirky but brilliant score. Eyes closed in this famous production by Peter Hall, first seen in 1981?
A staged piano recital and an opera as a concert. Pianist András Schiff accompanied the Salzburg Marionette Theater at the Mozarteum Grosser Saal and Anna Netrebko sang Manon Lescaut at the Grosses Festspielhaus.
On August 4, 2016, soprano Leah Crocetto and accompanist Tamara Sanikidze gave a recital at the Scottish Rite Center in Santa Fe New Mexico. A winner of the Metropolitan Opera Auditions and the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Contest, this year Crocetto was singing Donna Anna in Santa Fe Opera’s excellent Don Giovanni.
On July 31, 2016, against the ethereal beauty of the main hall in the Scottish Rite Center, soprano Angela Meade and pianist Joe Illick gave a recital offering both opera and art songs ranging in origin from early nineteenth century Europe to mid twentieth century America. Many in the audience probably remembered Meade’s recent excellent portrayal of Norma at Los Angeles Opera.
When more is definitely more, and less would indeed be less. Two of the biggest names in Italian theater art collide in an eponymous theater.
It was the fifth Proms Chamber Music concert at Cadogan Hall this season, and we were celebrating Shakespeare’s 400th. And, given the extent and range of the composers and artists, and the diversity and profundity of the musical achievement inspired by the Bard, we could probably keep celebrating in this fashion ad infinitum.
Each August the bleak and leaky, 12,000 seat Arena Adriatica (home of the famed Pesaro basketball team) magically transforms itself into an improvised opera house that boasts the ultimate in opera chic — exemplary Rossini production standards for its now twelve hundred seats.
This highly enjoyable Prom, part of 2016’s ‘Proms at ’ mini-series, took as its guiding concept the reopening of London’s theatres following the Restoration, focusing in particular upon musical and dramatic responses to Shakespeare. Purcell, rightly, loomed large, with John Blow and Matthew Locke joining him. Receiving their Proms premieres were the excerpts from Timon of Athens and those from Locke’s The Tempest.
With all the bombast of the presidential campaigns rattling in our heads, with invectives being exchanged and measured discussion all but absent, how utterly lovely to retreat and relax into the harmonious soundscape and well-reasoned debate posed in Strauss’ Capriccio, on magnificent display at Santa Fe Opera.
When we entered the Crosby Theatre for Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette the stage was surprisingly dominated by a somber, semi-circular black mausoleum, many chambers inscribed with scrambled names of US Civil War era dead.
Molten passions were seething just below the icy Nordic exterior of Santa Fe Opera’s wholly masterful production of Barber’s Vanessa.
Farce is probably the most difficult of dramatic comedy sub-genres to put across. A farce got up in the stately robes of opera sets its presenters an even higher bar. Presenting an operatic farce on a notoriously chilly and cavernous auditorium is to risk catastrophe.
Fan interest began raging when Santa Fe Opera engaged venerable artist Patricia Racette to make her role debut as Minnie in Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West.
For those who might be seeking a representational tale of the legendary Roman slave Spartacus, well, Gladiator this ain’t.
The industrious Heidelberg City Theater is to be commended for excavating this early 18th century curiosity, composed by Giuseppe Porsile in 1726 for the Emperor’s Carnival celebration in Vienna. After considerable popular success, Spartaco (perhaps unfairly) disappeared. But just like Evita’s body, or a bad penny, it has now re-surfaced, alas tarted up in a mounting that aspires to be moralizing, scolding, Shabby-Chic but which only manages to succeed with the pre-hyphen portion of that label.
Happily, this performance lacks for nothing musically as it is exceedingly well sung and played. The period band assembled from the ranks of the Philharmonic Orchestra of the City of Heidelberg augmented by Baroque specialists gave great pleasure and offered variety and consistency in equal measure under the propulsive baton of Michael Form. There were especially fine contributions by Julian Behr (theorbo) and Marc Meisel (continuo). At the very end of the evening, a sudden welcome addition appeared with a brilliantly accurate piccolo trumpet solo by Laura Vukobratovic. Maestro Form seemed in good sync with his talented singers and instrumentalists and they collaborated to fine effect.
Perhaps the very recent financial scare that threatened to actually shut down the Stadttheater looms over the operation still. How else to explain the junk pile approach to the overall set “design”? I am not bothered by seeing an unadorned stage with all the rigging and escape doors in full view. But I take issue with the deliberate ugliness of all the motley, disparate, and worn out pieces that clutter that playing area. Well, it is not quite completely bare since a large projection screen dominates the upstage playing space fronted by a platform, and (uh-oh) contemporary microphones on stands (be afraid, be very afraid). The tawdry props and dressing seem to have been collected from the curbside, one step ahead of the garbage trucks on bulk trash pick-up day.
Ben Baur is not only on the blame line for this scenic hodge-podge, but also for devising the costumes. Drawing on the opera’s Carnival associations, he has attired most of the cast in what seem to be homemade costumes such as people without taste might throw together in an attempt to be “wild and crazy.” You know, you’ve seen them. They are of the ilk of pulling patterned underwear over outerwear, painting on freckles with mom’s mascara, and wearing Doc Martins with a tutu. While I made that up, none of it would have been out of place here or any less meaningful. Young Mr. Baur has some wonderful credits to his name, and it has to be said that Vetturia’s historical gown, wig, and crown were fetching. And even the clowns (yes, clowns, God-help-us) were visually arresting. Would that the rest of the cast had been treated to as much consideration, for their characterizations were not helped by their “look.”
Perhaps all of this could have had more impact had it been compellingly lit, but with no lighting designer even credited, the unimaginative wash and clumsy area lighting effects contributed nothing to the staging. Perhaps the Rococo Theatre has severe technical limitations? Although I did not much enjoy the content of Stefan Butzmühlen’s videos (or even see the need for them) they were in fact very professionally created. Highlighting just one of the movies, screened over ballet music: rowdy clowns have a take-no-prisoners cream pie fight. Yep, Bozo is up there hurling those pastries hither and yon, while the plot stops. Oh, and then two of the film actors force feed a piece of pie to a down-and-out street person crashed on the sidewalk in front of their house.
Emilio Pons as Spartaco
The responsibility for this clutter must be laid at the feet of stage director Michael von zur Mühlen. Apparently borrowing from the titular hero’s slave status, there is a concept at work that decries oppression and slavery (and well, who can disagree with that, hmm?). But Herr v.z. Mühlen is not content to play the opera straight to make his point, but grafts on amplified shrill prose diatribes, made up out of whole cloth, shouted by three extraneous clowns. Part Stephen King’s evil It, part Clarabelle with a wireless mike, part Emmet Kelly in need of a distemper shot, actors Judith Achner, Alisabeth Schlicksupp, and Richard Hoppart strive to be ominous and creepy, but wind up being strident and irrelevant. In addition to these scripted ‘improvements’ to Posile’s opera, we are also subjected to the insertion of the rock recording “Wake Up” by Rage Against the Machine. Oh, and the cast passes the text around a dinner table and reads the lyrics to the finale instead of actually singing the concerted number. There are at least 25 minutes of additional, extra-musical material/scenarios dragging down the show’s considerable musical values.
Mr. Director, sir, there is a fine line between “shock” and “schlock.”
Which leads me to posit the question: If you don’t trust the inherent quality or message of the material, why bother? Why not make up something wholly new? Why subvert someone else’s hard work? This is facile, feckless, free-loading pretense, and it serves neither the talented performers nor the audience, as evidenced by the number of empty seats that only increased after intermission. But… may I return to praising the truly gifted performers?
In the title role, young tenor Emlio Pons revealed a highly appealing lyric voice, good stylistic acumen, and meticulous passage work in the fierier outbursts. His pleasing instrument goes easily above the staff, and he acts affectingly with the voice without ever sacrificing sound technique. On the “short” side of “tall” he nevertheless commands the stage with an easy, natural presence. Even when he is asked to do un-natural or insulting things. Like stand on an upended beer case to raise him above the height of his female co-stars. Or like taking off his clothes for all of Act Two.
That’s right, in his first aria at the top of Two, Emilio strips off every stitch of his Home-Made-Fasching-Faux-Centurion gear and plays the entire second act in the altogether like a nudist in search of a camp. Eye candy it decidedly may have been, but can you imagine Domingo submitting to this? (Would you want to???) Adding to the mutual discomfort, Mr. Pons eventually toted on two white plastic buckets and then proceeded to slather his body with…what? Mud? War paint? Godiva chocolate sauce? Eventually, his face was crudely got up like Al Jolson about to address Mr. Interlocutor, and he donned a clown ruff, paper Bart-Simpson-hair-do crown, and furry red overcoat meant to suggest a royal robe. But the dang fur-piece persisted in flapping inelegantly, contributing yet another distracting effect of Penis Peek-a-Boo. I am not sure that an artist this fine has ever been made to be so audaciously displayed.
Camilla de Falleiro was a bewitching stage creature as a love-lorn Gianisbe. This charismatic soprano contributed spot-on singing all night and conquered the high-flying challenges of her multiple arias with aplomb, offering crystal clear tone, beauty of sound, rapid fire coloratura, and warmth of personality. This was top-quality vocalism. Yosemeh Adjei has a very distinctive counter-tenor, his well-schooled treble laced with real bite and snap. He runs the risk of verging on edginess, but this is an exciting instrument. And he is a lively stage creature, filling his scenes with agile activity. He also got to show off his gym bunny torso in a square-off duel with the Popilius of Franz Vitzthum, another exceptional counter-tenor who commands a flexible range, creamy rich tone, and stylish phrasing.
Annika Ritlewski as Vetturia
Annika Ritlewski scored all of Vetturia’s musical points with her ample, womanly soprano, and provided even singing at both extremes of the range. Mariale Lichdi treated us to some bravura moments, and her pleasant timbre and assured technique were surely appreciated. Too bad Ms. Lichdi was hindered by being the director’s “symbol,” or rather two of them, impersonating first Rosa Luxemburg and then (no kidding) Ulrike Meinhof (yes, of the Red Faction Baader-Meinhof Gang). While baritone Sebastian Geyer was indisposed, he animatedly acted the role of Trasone while Lisandro Abadies provided richly detailed singing from the pit.
What of the piece itself? The production certainly short-changed us in making an informed decision, but there were many attractive set pieces that were beautifully rendered. There seems to be considerably more pleasure to be mined from Pisole’s Spartaco. I certainly would welcome the chance to experience another production of it, shorn of all the pseudo-socialist, politically provocative associations that have weighted down this clumsy rendition.
Halfway through Act Two, handbills rained down on us from the top tier that read: “We don’t want a piece of cake, we want the whole bakery.”
With the “whole bakery” thrown randomly on stage, including the kitchen sink, far too little time was spent savoring the one succulent piece of Kuchen that might have been the composer’s Spartaco.