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.
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. Under the neon-glare of laboratory strip-lights, the scientists and literary archeologists rout through the relics, scrape away palimpsests, shatter the printing presses, and uncover a shocking tale of violence, sex, suicide and cannibalism. ‘Strip the cities of brick,’ they cry; ‘Cancel all flights from the international airport.’ Yet, despite its ‘distance’ - both historical and aesthetic - this disturbing juxtaposition of innocence and monstrosity unsettles and seeps into our modern consciousness, like ink staining parchment.
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.
The Feast at Solhaug : Henrik Ibsen's play Gildet paa Solhaug (1856) inspired Wilhelm Stenhammer's opera Gillet på Solhaug. The world premiere recording is now available via Sterling CD, in a 3 disc set which includes full libretto and background history.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.
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.