Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Schoenberg's Gurrelieder at the Proms - Sir Simon Rattle

Prom 46: Schoenberg's Gurrelieder with Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra, Simon O'Neill, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Karen Cargill, Peter Hoare, Christopher Purves and Thomas Quasthoff. And three wonderful choirs - the CBSO Chorus, the London Symphony Chorus and Orfeó Català from Barcelona, with Chorus Master Simon Halsey, Rattle's close associate for 35 years.

Dunedin Consort perform Bach's St John Passion at the Proms

John Butt and the Dunedin Consort's 2012 recording of Bach's St John Passion was ground-breaking for it putting the passion into the context of a reconstruction of the original Lutheran Vespers service.

Collision: Spectra Ensemble at the Arcola Theatre

‘Asteroid flyby in October: A drill for the end of the world?’ So shouted a headline in USA Today earlier this month, as journalist Doyle Rice asked, ‘Are we ready for an asteroid impact?’ in his report that in October NASA will conduct a drill to see how well its planetary defence system would work if an actual asteroid were heading straight for Earth.

Joshua Bell offers Hispanic headiness at the Proms

At the start of the 20th century, French composers seemed to be conducting a cultural love affair with Spain, an affair initiated by the Universal Exposition of 1889 where the twenty-five-year old Debussy and the fourteen-year-old Ravel had the opportunity to hear new sounds from East Asia, such as the Javanese gamelan, alongside gypsy flamenco from Granada.

Hibiki: a European premiere by Mark-Anthony Turnage at the Proms

Hibiki: sound, noise, echo, reverberation, harmony. Commissioned by the Suntory Hall in Tokyo to celebrate the Hall’s 30th anniversary in 2016, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s 50-minute Hibiki, for two female soloists, children’s chorus and large orchestra, purports to reflect on the ‘human reverberations’ of the Tohoku earthquake in 2011 and the devastation caused by the subsequent tsunami and radioactive disaster.

Janáček: The Diary of One Who Disappeared, Grimeborn

A great performance of Janáček’s song cycle The Diary of One Who Disappeared can be, allowing for the casting of a superb tenor, an experience on a par with Schoenberg’s Erwartung. That Shadwell Opera’s minimalist, but powerful, staging in the intimate setting of Studio 2 of the Arcola Theatre was a triumph was in no small measure to the magnificent singing of the tenor, Sam Furness.

Khovanshchina: Mussorgsky at the Proms

Remembering the centenary of the Russian Revolution, this Proms performance of Mussorgsky’s mighty Khovanshchina (all four and a quarter hours of it) exceeded all expectations on a musical level. And, while the trademark doorstop Proms opera programme duly arrived containing full text and translation, one should celebrate the fact that - finally - we had surtitles on several screens.

Santa Fe: Entertaining If Not Exactly (R)evolutionary

You know what I loved best about Santa Fe Opera’s world premiere The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs?

Longborough Young Artists in London: Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice

For the last three years, Longborough Festival Opera’s repertoire of choice for their Young Artist Programme productions has been Baroque opera seria, more specifically Handel, with last year’s Alcina succeeding Rinaldo in 2014 and Xerxes in 2015.

Full-throated Cockerel at Santa Fe

A tale of a lazy, befuddled world leader that ‘has no clothes on’ and his two dimwit sons, hmmmm, what does that remind me of. . .?

Santa Fe’s Trippy Handel

If you don’t like a given moment in Santa Fe Opera’s staging of Alcina, well, just like the volatile mountain weather, wait two minutes and it will surely change.

Santa Fe’s Crowd-Pleasing Strauss

With Die Fledermaus’ thrice familiar overture still lingering in our ears, it didn’t take long for the assault of hijinks to reduce the audience into guffaws of delight.

Santa Fe: Mad for Lucia

If there is any practitioner currently singing the punishing title role of Lucia di Lammermoor better than Brenda Rae, I am hard-pressed to name her.

Janáček's The Cunning Little Vixen at Grimeborn

Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen can be a difficult opera to stage, despite its charm and simplicity. In part it is a good, old-fashioned morality tale about the relationships between humans and animals, and between themselves, but Janáček doesn’t use a sledgehammer to make this point. It is easy for many productions to fall into parody, and many have done, and it is a tribute to The Opera Company’s staging of this work at the Arcola Theatre that they narrowly avoided this pitfall.

Handel's Israel in Egypt at the Proms: William Christie and the OAE

For all its extreme popularity with choirs, Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt is a somewhat problematic work; the scarcity of solos makes hiring professional soloists an extravagant expense, and the standard version of the work starts oddly with a tenor recitative. If we return to the work's history then these issues are put into context, and this is what William Christie did for the performance of Handel’s Israel in Egypt at the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on Tuesday 1 August 2017.

Sirens and Scheherazade: Prom 18

From Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, to Bruch’s choral-orchestral Odysseus, to Fauré’s Penelope, countless compositions have taken their inspiration from Homer’s Odyssey, perhaps not surprisingly given Homer’s emphasis on the power of music in the Greek world.

A new La clemenza di Tito at Glyndebourne

Big birds are looming large at Glyndebourne this year. After Juno’s Peacock, which scooped up the suicidal Hipermestra, Chris Guth’s La clemenza di Tito offers us a huge soaring magpie, symbolic of Tito’s release from the chains of responsibility in Imperial Rome.

Prom 9: Fidelio lives by its Florestan

The last time Beethoven’s sole opera, Fidelio, was performed at the Proms, in 2009, Daniel Barenboim was making a somewhat belated London opera debut with his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.

The Merchant of Venice: WNO at Covent Garden

In Out of Africa, her account of her Kenyan life, Karen Blixen relates an anecdote, ‘Farah and The Merchant of Venice’. When Blixen told Farah Aden, her Somali butler, the story of Shakespeare’s play, he was disappointed and surprised by the denouement: surely, he argued, the Jew Shylock could have succeeded in his bond if he had used a red-hot knife? As an African, Farah expected a different narrative, demonstrating that our reception of art depends so much on our assumptions and preconceptions.

Leoncavallo's Zazà at Investec Opera Holland Park

The make-up is slapped on thickly in this new production of Leoncavallo’s Zazà by director Marie Lambert and designer Alyson Cummings at Investec Opera Holland Park.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Paul Hindemith (1923) [Photo: Wikipedia]
14 Dec 2010

Paris: ‘Maler’ or ‘Malheur’?

No one could accuse the Paris Opera of pinching pennies (or Euro cents) in their lavishly expansive (and expensive) staging of Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler.

Paul Hindemith: Mathis der Maler

Albrecht von Brandenburg: Scott MacAllister; Mathis: Matthias Goerne; Lorenz von Pommersfelden: Thorsten Gruen; Wolfgang Capito: Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke; Riedinger: Gregory Reinhart; Hans Schwalb: Michael Weinius; Ursula: Melanie Diener; Regina: Martina Welschenbach; Countess of Helfenstein: Nadine Weissman; Truchsess von Waldburg: Antoine Garcin; Sylvester von Schaumberg: Eric Huchet. Conductor: Christoph Eschenbach. Director: Oliver Py. Set and Costumes: Pierre-André Weitz. Lighting: Bertrand Kelly. Chorus Master: Patrick Marie Aubert.

Above: Paul Hindemith (1923) [Photo: Wikipedia]

 

Unfortunately, sometimes more can be less, and the personal plight of the characters too often seemed secondary to the hulking, tracking set design created by Pierre-André Weitz. Not that it wasn’t well constructed and functional. It was. Mostly. But the massive three-story facade with staircases and platforms and ornate gleaming gold frou-frou dwarfed everything and everyone every time it appeared. It was meant to dazzle, and it did sparkle and gleam, but mostly it distracted as it rolled, sunk, rotated and did everything but stand on its head and whistle Dixie.

Having updated the period to just after the time of its composition (read: WW2), there were some coherent images that paralleled Matthias Grűnewald’s struggle for artistic expression in the repressive climate of his day with the challenges Hindemith faced as the Nazis gained control of the country. But there were many other ideas that just didn’t quite mesh with the tale of the beleaguered painter of the colorful Isenheim Alterpiece. And there were some downright oddities in scenic decisions.

Why did a functional, chest-high platform bearing a living quasi-tableau of the altarpiece have holes in its floor so that characters could stand up on the (lower) main stage floor, chest-high in the spaces? In fact, what on earth was director Oliver Py thinking when he had the cast bending over and crawling underneath said platform to get from behind it to the stage apron to sing? What was that about? St. Cunegonde’s cure for backaches? Too often the performers seemed to be singing to us, or about each other, rather than to each other.

The siege/attack/rebellion segments were physicalized by manually rolling on Panzers and tromping in storm troopers, and placing it all in bombed out mansions and government buildings, and lacing it heavily with swastikas. All well and good enough I suppose, but the dreariness of war-torn Germany made the occasionally ponderous writing even more turgid, and the resonance that the creative team had aspired to didn’t quite occur. Weitz fared better with his characterful 40’s costumes, although there was the odd 15th century garb hither and thither that garbled the physical impression.

In an apparent attempt to goose up the visuals, lighting designer Bertrand Kelly seemed to pull out all the stops with a riot of gobo effects, hazers, film loops, rotating prisms, Vari-Lites, you name it. It was not unlike a stage lighting trade show. In addition to some lively and evocative illumination, however, Mr. Kelly also turned blinding white lights on the audience on more than one occasion, causing patrons to physically turn their heads away, wince and squint, hold a hand up to shield their eyes, and generally react with considerable discomfort. Hmmmmm. Were the focus to be more sensibly adjusted, this would make the light plot emphatically the most satisfying design element, for it was otherwise well-considered.

The title role calls for heroic utterance and Herculean stamina. Matthias Goerne had quite enough of the latter if not the former. I greatly enjoy Mr. Goerne in recital, and was entertained by his Papageno in Salzburg. But precious nuance, and engaging charm are not what Mr. Hindemith is asking for. Our leading man is more often than not called upon to pour out pulsing, solid phrases over a multi- and thickly-layered orchestration. Our baritone was found slightly wanting on the lower conversational passages and the upper forte extremes of the part. The rich middle voice was deployed very conscientiously, although it has to be said that Goerne’s grainy tone did not always slice through the accompaniment with ease, if at all. The top was pressed when volume was needed and turned somewhat straight and dry. Happily, the final great monologue played to all of his considerable interpretive gifts, and he managed to limn a moving finale, limpid and introspective without being self-pitying. Matthias is undeniably a major artist but the role is simply a size too large for his instrument. Pity.

2eOuvertureRetable_lb.gifIsenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald (1506-1515)

Not so with the Albrecht von Brandenburg as sung by Scott MacAllister. The bright, incisive, clarion tenor may not have the elegant richness of say, James King, but McAllister nails the part. Is it quibbling to wish that he was capable of more variety of color when he sings it this well? I also admired Thorsten Gruen who utilized his vibrant, dark bass baritone to good musical effect as Lorenz von Pommersfelden. Every bit his equal, Michael Weinius offered a beautiful orotund bass in the service of Hans Schwalb. In the less grateful role of Wolfgang Capito, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke was musically competent if dramatically flat, and did all that was required, if no more. Gregory Reinhart’s solid bass gave much pleasure as Riedinger, with veteran basso Antoine Garcin in thundering voice as Truchsess von Waldburg.

Melanie Diener has a fine career going with notable appearances at major houses. Hers is a meaty enough soprano, with a reedy quality and quicksilver vibrato that serves the role of Ursula very well indeed. She has a vibrant stage presence and is wholly involved in the drama. Her musical instincts are first rate, and her sound technique delivers whatever she (and the composer) asks of it. It is true, the cruelly high tessitura on a few angular phrases challenged her to modulate to a thinner, tighter production. But Ms. Diener delivered the goods, and projected the most fire of anyone on the stage. Curiously, she didn’t have quite the cumulative impact I imagined she should, but maybe it is a limitation of the writing? Altogether a first class performance none the less.

The lovely, lilting singing from lovely, blond Martina Welschenbach also brought much joy to the proceedings as Regina. Ms. Welschenbach also has a winning stage demeanor and dramatic savvy. Her well-schooled soprano rang out with good presence, and she assuredly contributed some of the evening’s most affecting phrasing. Nadine Weissman gave a solid, plummy account of the Countess of Helfenstein’s featured scenes.

Mathis der Maleris unquestionably better known as a greatly truncated symphonic piece and if we have any expectations coming into the auditorium, it is to hear the orchestral music thrilling played. Christoph Eschenbach and his splendid orchestra did not disappoint. The greater the challenge the better this group seems to play and they were riveting all night as they tossed off every fiendish requirement Hindemith could devise. Rich, complex banks of strings? You got it. Virtuosic solo turns? No problem. Heart-racing rhythmic effects? Check. Magnificent work from the pit. And kudos to the always fine chorus under the tutelage of Patrick Marie Aubert.

I have (perhaps overly) fond recollections of a beautifully sung, sparingly staged version of the piece in Wiesbaden many years ago, with the altarpiece itself forming almost the entire scenic concept. Masterful, I thought at the time. I found myself longing for its simpler, less bombastic pleasures. But still, it is always wonderful to have any opportunity at all to see Mathis der Maler and if Paris’s unruly design elements are really more “malheur” than “Maler” perhaps they could be tamed, the blocking quirks addressed, and the current staging might just yet be fully redeemed by its superior musical achievements.

James Sohre

Click here for a video excerpt.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):