15 Aug 2010
Tristan in Seattle
Seattle, the city of software and Starbucks, is also a summer site for serious Wagnerites.
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.
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.
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.
Heading to N.Y.C and D.C. for its annual performances, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra invited Semyon Bychkov to return for his Mahler debut with the Fifth Symphony. Having recently returned from Vienna with praise for their rendition, the orchestra now presented it at their homebase.
Igor Stravinsky's lost Funeral Song, (Chante funèbre) op 5 conducted by Valery Gergiev at the Mariinsky in St Petersburg This extraordinary performance was infinitely more than an ordinary concert, even for a world premiere of an unknown work.
On Tuesday evening this week, I found myself at The Actors Centre in London’s Covent Garden watching a performance of Unknowing, a dramatization of Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben and Dichterliebe (in a translation by David Parry, in which Matthew Monaghan directed a baritone and a soprano as they enacted a narrative of love, life and loss. Two days later at the Wigmore Hall I enjoyed a wonderful performance, reviewed here, by countertenor Philippe Jaroussky with Julien Chauvin’s Le Concert de la Loge, of cantatas by Telemann and J.S. Bach.
Seattle, the city of software and Starbucks, is also a summer site for serious Wagnerites.
Best known for its regular Ring cycle, the Seattle Opera presents other Wagner operas in the off years. The high quality of this summer’s performance of Tristan und Isolde is a tribute to the company’s seriousness of purpose. While perhaps not quite a match for its legendary 1998 Tristan, in which Jane Eaglen and Ben Heppner debuted in the title roles, it nonetheless presents as strong a cast as one is likely to encounter anywhere today.
Clifton Forbis is that rarest of singers: a genuine dramatic Heldentenor whose clarion top rests on a dark baritonal base. If his voice seems a bit less supple than in his impressive 2005 Geneva performance (available on DVD), it is now more solidly grounded. On August 4, despite lingering indisposition, he displayed hardly a single moment of technical insecurity. While somewhat restrained in Act I, perhaps by design, he trumpeted the Act III high notes with apparent ease—as if, in the Birgit Nilsson tradition, he could sing it all over again. (The performance was shorn of the Act II “Tag und Nacht” segment, a standard Seattle cut, but Act III was performed complete—more than many Tristans sing.) Throughout there were moments of genuine musical and dramatic insight. While those with a historical perspective might quibble, calling here and there for clearer diction, subtler phrasing, gentler pianos, warmer timbre, or deeper psychological insight—who today sings a finer Tristan?
Annalena Persson as Isolde
Much anticipation surrounded the American debut of Annalena Persson. The young Swedish soprano sang the role of Isolde to acclaim at the Welsh National Opera in 2006, where Seattle impresario Speight Jenkins signed her up. (The local press hints that she is slated as Seattle’s 2013 Brünnhilde as well.) Young, blonde, comely and, by Wagnerian standards, slim, Persson looks the part. Her silvery voice has edge and brilliance that can project, despite some lack of warmth and heft, through a Wagnerian orchestra. At times she is a thrilling interpreter, particularly at moments of anger and excitement, such as the Act I Narration and Curse—especially where the orchestration is light. But the role of Isolde overstretches her vocal resources. On sustained (particularly rising) tones in the upper middle part of the voice, the voice weakens and the vibrato widens dangerously. The “Liebestod,” almost entirely comprised of such passages sung against full orchestra, was thus anti-climactic.
The secondary roles were all taken by Seattle favorites, to great effect. Stephen Milling nearly stole the show with a moving König Marke. His rich bass effortlessly filled the hall, and his German diction was exemplary. Margaret Jane Wray is gaining attention these days, consistently singing major roles at the Met. To judge from her Brangäne here, the spreading fame is well-deserved. Hers is a soprano approach to this Zwischenfach role, slightly steely at the top, but clearly projected and delivered, with plenty of volume. Greer Grimsley, Seattle’s resident Wotan, made a more convincing Kurwenal for being understated and elegant wherever possible. Jason Collins plays a forceful Melot, Simeon Esper a sweet Shepherd/Sailor, and Barry Johnson a fine Steersman.
Clifton Forbis as Tristan
Seattle’s Principal Guest Conductor Asher Fisch is not one to pepper this score with excessive accelerandos, overweighty accents, or bloated brass. He strives instead for a consistent mood of classical restraint, brilliantly achieved through smooth line, subtle detail, smooth blend, and transparent textures. (Connoisseurs might note also the innovative use of open strings and Wagner’s specified Holztrompete in Act III.) The orchestra, once past some botched entrances in the prelude, played splendidly.
Stage director Peter Kazaras conceives Acts II and III as Tristan and Isolde’s final hallucination. That is, the potion is indeed the death potion Isolde ordered, and from then on we share the images that pass through the lovers’ minds in the moments before they expire. The inspiration is Ambrose Bierce’s famous short story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” This concept offers many potential insights into text and score. It promises to link the opera’s two central concepts, love and death, in a unique way, underscores Tristan and Isolde’s uncanny separation from all that goes on around them, with everything important taking place within their minds, and highlights the opera’s uniquely distorted sense of time.
Annalena Persson as Isolde and Margaret Jane Wray as Brangäne
Ultimately the production fails to fully engage this demanding concept, though the stage direction, set design, and costumes (the latter two being the work of Robert Israel) display numerous virtues. On the positive side, a semi-transparent curtain draws the viewer gently into the dream world of each act, as if falling asleep (in the best possible sense!). The gloomy semi-abstract unit set, with a window at the back into reality, is visually neutral but acoustically resonant—a virtue too often neglected these days. The blocking of Act II, in which Tristan and Isolde slowly follow one another across a dark stage, like Orpheus and Eurydice, evokes their ghostly state between worlds. Similarly consistent with the concept, Kurwenal is never killed but simply recedes from Tristan’s consciousness. Tristan and Isolde’s costumes shift from mortal red to half-red, and finally to pure transfigured white, as if the blood is slowly draining from them. The extensive use of computer-aided lighting effects, a Seattle innovation with this production, is evocative. Tristan sings his first lines in Act II while apparently fully encased in a large slab of solid stone—a striking effect in itself, but also one that highlights that Isolde is summoning him only in her mind. (It would be even more effective if maintained for more than a few lines.) Other coups de théâtre include a glittering shower for the potion, and a giant, glowing holographic candle for the Act II light.
Yet much else is a jumble, undermining the production’s core concept. Semi-realistic elements—large wrapped paintings, a tree, furniture, and the little model ship (mandatory, it seems, in contemporary Tristan productions)—coexist uneasily with abstract ones, such as laser-like red cords and a “stage within a stage” curtain behind which characters intermittently disappeared. This is hallucinatory, perhaps, but incoherent. The blocking at the end of Act I, and throughout Act II, tells us less than it might about the subjective experience of passing from day into night: It is not clear, for example, why the “dying” Tristan and Isolde are separated at the start of Act II, then again reunited. Nor does the costuming and comportment of secondary characters clearly delineate their status from the subjective perspective of the dying couple: One would expect a more fundamental change in how they are perceived after the Tristan and Isolde imbibe poison. In the end, too much of the production is static, even blandly realistic, in a classic stand-and-sing manner.
In the intermissions and on line, one encounters considerable criticism of this production for being too radical. I believe it is, on balance, too conservative. Readers of my recent commentary on the Stuttgart Ring know I can be critical of the excesses of Wagnerian Regietheater. Yet this production of Tristan might profitably have been more radical and rigorously intellectual—more konsequent, a German critic might well have said. The production is insightful as it stands, but a future revival might give Kazaras a second chance to realize its promising central idea more starkly.