12 Oct 2012
The Barber of Frankfurt
Frankfurt Opera’s adventurous season had a notable beginning with a luminous staging of Samuel Barber’s seldom heard Vanessa.
Dulce Rosa, a brand new opera, had its world premiere Friday night, May 17, 2013 at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, California. It was produced by Los Angeles Opera, but staged in the smaller theater.
Richard Jones’ 2009 production of Verdi’s Falstaff translates the action from the first Elizabethan age to the start of the second.
Baritone Gareth John is rapidly accumulating a war-chest of honours. Winner of the 2013 Kathleen Ferrier Award, he recently won the Royal Academy of Music Patrons’ Award and was presented the Silver Medal by the Worshipful Company of Musicians.
This second revival of Jonathan Miller’s La bohème was the first time I had caught the production.
It’s Verdi’s bicentenary year and Rolando Villazón has two new CDs to plug — titled somewhat confusingly, ‘Villazón: Verdi’ and ‘Villazón’s Verdi’, the latter a ‘personal selection’ of favourite numbers performed by stars of the past and present.
Nicola Luisotti and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra climbed out of the War Memorial pit, braved the wind whipped bay and held spellbound an audience at Cal Performances’ Zellerbach Auditorium at UC Berkeley.
Utterly mad but absolutely right — Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos started the Glyndebourne 2013 season with an explosion. Strauss could hardly have made his intentions more clear. Ariadne auf Naxos is not “about” Greek myth so much as a satire on art and the way art is made.
“Man is an abyss. It makes one dizzy to look into it.” So utters Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, repeating what was also a recurring motif in the playwright’s own letters.
National Opera Company of the Rhine has marked this year’s Benjamin Britten celebration with a remarkably compelling, often gripping new production of the seldom-seen Owen Wingrave.
Once upon a time, Frankfurt Opera had the baddest ass reputation in Germany as “the” cutting edge producer of must-see opera.
Productions of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto can serve as a vehicle for individual singers to make a strong impression and become afterward associated with specific roles in the opera.
Just in case we were not aware that the evening’s programme was ‘themed’, the Britten Sinfonia designed a visual accompaniment to their musical exploration of night, sleep and dreams.
Poor Aida! She never seems to have anything go her way.
Is it possible to upstage Jonas Kaufmann? Kaufmann was brilliant in this Verdi Don Carlo at the Royal Opera House, London, but the rest of the cast was so good that he was but first among equals. Don Carlo is a vehicle for stars, but this time the stars were everyone on stage and in the pit. Even the solo arias, glorious as they are, grow organically out of perfect ensemble. This was a performance that brought out the true beauty of Verdi's music.
The big names were absent: Duparc, D’Indy, Debussy, Ravel and while Fauré, Chausson, Roussel and several members of Les Six put in an appearance, in less than familiar guises, this survey of French song of the early 20th century and interwar years deliberately took us on a journey through infrequently travelled terrain.
Composed between 1718 and 1720, Handel’s Esther is sometimes described as the ‘first English Oratorio’, but is in fact a hybrid form, mixing elements of oratorio, masque, pastoral and opera.
Hector Berlioz's légende dramatique, La Damnation de Faust, exists somewhere between cantata and opera. Berlioz's flexible attitude to dramatic form made the piece unworkable on the stages of early 19th century Paris and his music is so vivid that you wonder whether the piece needs staging at all.
St. John’s Smith Square was the site of Elizabeth Connell’s final London concert, intended as a farewell to London on her moving to Australia. It was rendered ultimately final by her unexpected death.
With the building of the Suez Canal, Egypt became more interesting to Western Europeans. Khedive Ismail Pasha wanted a hymn by Verdi for the opening of a new opera house in Cairo, but the composer said he did not write occasional pieces.
Back for its fourth revival, David McVicar’s 2003 production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte has much charm, beauty and artistry.
Frankfurt Opera’s adventurous season had a notable beginning with a luminous staging of Samuel Barber’s seldom heard Vanessa.
Pride of place must surely be given to the meticulously modulated conducting by Jonathon Darlington, who coaxed highly detailed and rapturous playing from the pit. The overall momentum of the piece was beautifully paced, and the surging, churning orchestral climaxes were beautifully judged and wrenching in their impact. The bravura playing elicited by Maestro Darlington is all the more remarkable considering the somewhat dry acoustic of the house itself. The sensitive solo passages were also instrumental (pun intended) in partnering the singers and aiding them in crafting three-dimensional characterizations. And what a splendid group of vocalists they were!
Company member Jenny Carlstedt was absolutely lovely as the wronged niece Erika, deploying her well-schooled lyric mezzo with great musical and dramatic intelligence. Her melting rendition of “Must the Winter Come So Soon” early on in the piece set the bar very high and established the underlying melancholy that informs the entire work.
Maria Callas, having backed out of title role at the Metropolitan première (to be replaced by Eleanor Steber) sniffed something to the effect that “the opera should be called ‘Erika’.” And, indeed, the role is arguably the only wholly sympathetic character in an environment peopled by the opportunistic and the deluded. Ms. Carlstedt wrung every ounce of sympathy and pathos out of the role and the audience received her with unbridled enthusiasm at curtain call.
While Ms. Carlstedt may not have a large voice, it is so cleanly and clearly produced that she managed to not only float easily on the orchestral textures, but also ride every instrumental wave. She also has a superb sense of line and dramatic intent, and embodied a meaningful, simmering subtext that underscored Erika’s emotional roller coaster ride. From impressionable, naïve youth to cool, resigned maturity, Jenny took us on a riveting journey.
Charlotta Larsson as Vanessa was every inch the still glamorous, desperate dreamer, awaiting the return of her paramour (revealed as deceased), only to be confronted with his gold-digging son. Ms. Larsson has everything required for the role, except perhaps stature. The diminutive diva was the shortest person on stage, and her beautiful appearance seemed not much older than her niece. Still, the soprano dominated her every scene with a ripe, full-bodied instrument that had ample fire power and a gleaming presence as it soared above the staff. Charlotta not only spit out Vanessa’s many petulant recriminations with sassy abandon, but she successfully scaled back her volume and modulated her delivery to offer persuasive limpid singing in such passages as the memorable duet (”Love has a bitter core”).
Kurt Streit cut a good figure, if arguably just a bit (but only a bit) mature as Anatol. He is, of course, a noted Mozartian and it was in the parlando passages and more measured lyric outpourings that his pleasing tenor scored the best, which is to say exceedingly well, indeed. He has a secure technique and knows at all times how to channel his resources. In the enraptured high outbursts in the love duet, Mr. Streit chose to narrow and point the tone to provide carrying power, sacrificing some tonal beauty and spin, however, it has to be said that he made his effect. This was an assured performance from a seasoned veteran who knows his way around a stage. I do suggest that Kurt might tone down a bit of the faux-youthful ‘hail-fellow-well-met’ demeanor that he occasionally affects, since it has the unintended result of making Anatol appear somewhat ‘simple.’
Dietrich Volle, another company treasure, had a very good evening as the Old Doctor. His solid singing was always a pleasure and his sustained climactic high note in “Under the Willow Tree” was a force of nature: powerful, sustained, and buzzing with virile tone. Mr. Volle also managed to invest the part with sufficient self-effacing humor that it took away some of the self-pitying edge that can creep in. He was hampered a bit in his otherwise admirable undertaking by his accented English. In fact, of the entire cast only Mr. Streit displayed consistent, idiomatic pronunciation. I am not so terribly bothered by that except to wonder if such inaccuracy would be so blithely tolerated from international singers in German, Italian or French repertoire?
Helena Doese has a long history of notable successes with Frankfurt and the company now loyally signs her on for suitable character roles like the Old Baroness. Ms. Doese is another old pro who knows how to sustain a character and communicate truthfully and directly. It would be foolish to pretend that the voice is what it once was. The sheen and richness have largely been replaced by craft and cunning. But Helena manages to invest the vengeful caricature of a part with a degree of humanity which is no small feat. And although her voice is somewhat diffuse now, especially in the lower reaches, she nonetheless negotiates the vocal demands with pointed meaning.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was that young Björn Bürger could make such a memorable turn out of the throw-away part of the servant Nicholas. With his few lines, Mr. Bürger showed off a substantial, warm baritone. And his charismatic stage presence was put to good use with the briefest of scenes in which he dons a lady party guest’s fur (as he sings lovingly about it) and has a Marilyn Monroe girly moment, enjoying it perhaps just a bit too much. Inspired. Björn not only made the most of every opportunity, but left us wanting more, a mark of an artist of great promise. Michael Clark’s chorus was well-tutored and enlivened the party scene.
I am not sure which I liked more: Julia Müer’s stunning costumes, or Julia Müer’s stunning scenery. From Erika’s youthful polka-dotted day dress, to Vanessa’s outdoor play pants outfit to Anatol’s sweater vest to the sumptuous party gowns that seemed straight off a fashion runway, the attire was uniformly well-considered, inventive, and appropriate. For the set, Ms. Müer gave us an austere, moody environment. Stage right was filled with a large white drawing room with a main entrance in the right wall, a set of double doors upstage that opened to a warmer looking ballroom, and a large high spiral staircase left of center that seemed to reach to the heavens. A black grand piano was down center, mirrors were covered (as the script requires) and a plethora of pictures were hung with their faces to the wall.
Complementing this is a huge ice floe, filling stage left and threatening to break up even further and continue infringing on the domestic scene. This is a telling bit of artistry, the cracking icy surface mirrored in the characters’ ids and the whole effect brilliantly suggesting the isolation, physical and emotional, of the players. There were also several breath-taking effects, such as having Erika, at the end of Act One, taking down a picture and throwing it aside in disgust, and then having all the rest of the paintings suddenly fall off the wall to the floor to her (and our) astonishment. Having established that Erika “plays” the piano, after her miscarriage, she finished that scene in an Ingmar Bergman-like moment, by opening the lid and climbing into it, pulling it closed like a coffin. Chilling. As a bonus, Olaf Winter’s winning lighting design was another real asset to the total artistic collaboration of this production which originated at, and is shared with Malmö Opera.
It would be difficult to over-praise the contribution of director Katharina Thoma, for she has created a commendable sense of ensemble with her performers, and has fostered a focused unity of vision that is a joy to behold. From the moment the curtain rises, we know who these people are, and we are engaged by their needs. The blocking was meaningful, and at times much more. Witness the clever staging of Vanessa’s “Do Not Utter a Word.” The character cannot bear to look at her Prodigal Suitor, and to manage this believably Ms. Thoma positions Vanessa downstage of the entrance door that Anatol opens, allowing it to provide a natural separation with him upstage of it and her downstage.
Too, she has mysterious goings-on happening on the ice floes with character doubles. A youthful ‘Anatol’ sits on a shard of ice, brooding and smoking on occasion. Later, he discovers ‘Erika’ in the ravine as the plot narrates it. The off-stage church choir is a gathering assembled on the ice, for what? A funeral? A wedding? A fish boil? No matter, the imagery allows us to speculate, and without distracting us it adds layers to what could otherwise be a pretty straight-forward, and let’s face it, uninteresting story. Brava Katharina.
Frankfurt has assuredly made a compelling case that if “Vanessa” is treated to an apt and imaginative staging, wonderfully sung and resplendently played, well, there is life in the old girl yet.
Vanessa: Charlotta Larsson; Erika: Jenny Carlstedt; Old Baroness: Helena Döse; Anatol: Kurt Streit; Old Doctor: Dietrich Volle; Nicholas: Björn Bürger; Conductor: Jonathon Darlington; Director: Katharina Thoma; Set and Costume Design: Julia Müer; Lighting Design: Olaf Winter; Chorus Master: Michael Clark