26 Apr 2012
Zagreb’s Wagner Casts Its Spell
Croatian National Opera, in collaboration with Würzburg’s (Germany) Mainfranken Theater has made quite a forceful case for Parsifal.
The Wigmore Hall complete Schubert song series continued with a recital by Georg Nigl and Andreas Staier. Staier's a pioneer, promoting the use of fortepiano in Schubert song. In Schubert's time, modern concert pianos didn't exist. Schubert and his contemporaries would have been familiar with a lighter, brighter sound. Over the last 30 years, we've come to better understand Schubert and his world through the insights Staier has given us. His many performances, frequently with Christoph Prégardien at the Wigmore Hall, have always been highlights.
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.
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’.
Croatian National Opera, in collaboration with Würzburg’s (Germany) Mainfranken Theater has made quite a forceful case for Parsifal.
They have accomplished this first and foremost by assembling a cast of superlative singers, with pride of place going to the intriguing Kundry as impersonated by Dubravka Šeparović Mušović. She is an artist of great imagination and infinite variety. In Act One, she is a displaced street person, in Two a glamorous seductress who seems on the verge of a nervous breakdown as she vacillates between being Klingsor’s willing accomplice and a penitent in search of redemption. Free-wheeling moments of unbridled lust give way to nervous, guilty tics and stomach-churning disgust (for the character, not us). This was a valid, fully engaged, undeniably schizophrenic take on the character and Ms. Mušović wholly owned it.
Dubravka Šeparović Mušović as Kundry
Nor did she stint in the vocal arena as she let loose with an awesome arsenal of well-calculated effects including a smoldering low voice, searing top, well knit registers, tenderly caressed phrasings, and superbly controlled dynamics, remarkably all of a piece. There was not a moment that she was not invested in the emotional truth of Kundry’s musical lines as she fully immersed herself in a highly personal traversal of one of opera’s most complex characters.
Anton Keremidchiev served up a commanding Klinsgor possessed of what was easily the most beautiful voice I have ever heard cast in this part. Instead of the usual muscled up ranting and bluster, here was a clean, penetrating instrument deployed with a commendable sense of line and dramatic purpose. No parking, no barking, just forcefully beautiful vocalizing.
Veteran Claudius Muth showed off an orotund bass as Gurnemanz, utilized with a keen understanding of his well-schooled technique. The low and middle range rolled out with an easy presence, and while the very highest notes are just outside his core comfort zone, Mr. Muth managed them with consummate skill. Davor Radić contributed a ringing, secure account of Amfortas. Perhaps a tad too secure since his solid, pointed baritone rarely dipped in volume much below forte. A bit of modulation and color would enhance his somewhat stentorian presentation of the suffering soul.
Ivica Trubić likewise intoned a solid, off-stage Titurel, although it was a bit hard to judge any nuance in his vocals since they were amplified with a good deal of reverb. The excellent Flower Maidens were the best matched, most vibrant, and thrillingly sung of any in my experience.
John Charles Pierce as Parsifal, Dubravka Šeparović Mušović as Kundry and Manfred Hemm as Gurnemanz
That leaves our hero, and John Charles Pierce did not disappoint in the title role. I admit it, I am spoiled. My first Parsifal ever was Jon Vickers, who probably wrecked me for others forever. Mr. Pierce brought complete understanding to bear, and has a pleasant stage manner and a far more than serviceable tenor. Although he seems to cover the sound a bit, when he goes to nail a high phrase, he is able to summon a laser-like clarity. He was never less than thoroughly competent, and often brought joy, but he never quite elevated the role enough to make me forget that his is arguably the least interesting role in the opera.
Conductor Saša Britvić worked musical wonders in the pit helming this musical monster-piece. Predictably, the orchestra fared at its most virtuosic best in the more fiery Act Two, which bubbles and churns along more vividly. In the cruelly demanding expanses of One and Three, the group strove to much good effect in knitting the long, drawn out amblings into a unified whole. There were a few lapses of rhythmic impulse as the piece languidly unfolds (especially in the long rests which sapped the forward motion) and there was a slight dip in accurate intonation ‘round about the 100th minute of Act One, but overall, Maestro Britvić and his players should be duly proud of their achievement. The chorus, too, was trained to a fare-thee-well, and frequently raised goose bumps with their dynamic, poised singing.
To say the production recalls the best of the 1950’s is not to denigrate it in any way. In a nod to Wieland, designer Rudolf Rischer’s basic concept is a circle of Stonehenge-like monoliths that not only revolve at times to interesting new configurations, but also accept all manner of meaningful lighting gobo projections, such as stars, waves, etc. Within this milieu, the addition of a huge, tilted white cross, or the addition of a bridge skirted by red drapes provide all that is needed to adequately communicate Wagner’s intentions.
Gera Graf’s well-considered costumes are also rather timeless, offering a decidedly contemporary twist on the period. Flower maidens burst through the slit red drapes first demurely clad in white nun garb, with the wimples but minus the veils, then change and reappear in glittery, sequined, flesh-colored gowns. The knights are in generic tunics and cowls emblazoned with crosses, each with a sort of red-velvet back-pack that has a metal cross stuck upright in it. These get removed and positioned inventively about the stage, and the crosses later get extracted, upended, and brandished as swords.
Scene from Parsifal
Parsifal is all ‘Heroic Montsalvat Man-in-Black’ and sports a wondrous wig of dreadlocks. Indeed all of the hair treatment was quite inspired, and the make-up plot was of the kind you never see anymore, meant to convey features all the way to the top row of the balcony. Kundry’s genial hippie bag lady attire of One yielded to the second act's generic black gown as she was first unfurled, moaning and blindfolded, out of a cocoon of a red carpet. Soon enough, she was got up in a form-fitting black number with an extravagant blond wig, the whole effect topped with a massive “dust cover” of white chiffon. This piece of cloth gets put to creative dramatic use and gets re-purposed any number of times, not least of which as an ersatz spider web.
Roger Vanoni’s lighting design was effectively varied and gloriously colorful. Best of all, the singers faces were (almost) always fully lit. How cool is that? (Or ‘hot’?) A single caveat is that one of the follow-spot operators needs a brush-up in technique. Either Parsifal was being too spontaneous in his Act Two peregrinations or the operator was inattentive or both, for the light was too often playing catch-up to the actor. The concept that Klingsor was clad in a red suit (a la the Devil in Jerry Springer — The Opera) and operated Vari-lights from a sort of DJ desk on the suspended bridge was a fun conceit. When 'Special K' commanded a disco display of flashing lights, it somehow made sense and underscored his control freak persona.
Director Kurt Josef Schildknecht has invested good intentions in his stage pictures and has created plausible relationships between his characters. There is sometimes a tendency to sing forward for implausibly long stretches, but then the plus side is that the balance between stage and pit was excellent. The seduction in Two was played out on a raised circle (Wieland again!) that was at once bed and altar. I quite liked the many ways the actors found to meaningfully place themselves on it, around it, away from it, and under it, all the while communicating volumes with their relative stage positions.
John Charles Pierce as Parsifal with Blumenmädchen
Did everything work? Well, no. Klingsor’s hurling of the spear was ineffectual with two extras simply carrying it aloft to Parsifal who has absolutely no challenge to feebly raise his hand and grab it. However, I did like that he then used it and his sword to create a “cross,” the sight of which brought Klingsor to his knees like Dracula in submissive revulsion. The contemporary hospital bed for Amfortas remained a distraction for me throughout. And his hobbling around with crutches was dishonest since the actor could not remotely suggest that the character could not walk unassisted. Too, there was one unintentionally humorous moment, when a “page” was required to strike a three foot tall stack of ‘heavy’ over-sized books by just lifting them up and off like the Styrofoam they were!
Still, there are so many riches that were so successfully mined here from the challenging, enigmatic masterpiece that is Parsifal, that Croatian National Opera is to be (and was) loudly cheered for having brought such a thoughtful and committed performance to life.