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.
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
Plus an evening by the superb Modigliani Quartet that complimented the brief (55 minutes) a cappella opera for six female voices Svadba (2013) by Serbian composer Ana Sokolovic (b. 1968). She lives in Canada.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.
I had last seen Arabella as part of the Munich Opera Festival’s Richard Strauss Week in 2008. It is not, I am afraid, my favourite Strauss opera; in fact, it is probably my least favourite. However, I am always willing to be convinced.
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