Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Barbe & Doucet's new production of Die Zauberflöte at Glyndebourne

No one would pretend that Emanuel Schikaneder’s libretto for Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte would go down well with the #MeToo generation. Or with first, second or third wave feminists for that matter.

Three Chamber Operas at the Aix Festival

Along with the celestial Mozart Requiem, a doomed Tosca and a gloriously witty Mahagonny the Aix Festival’s new artistic director Pierre Audi regaled us with three chamber operas — the premiere of a brilliant Les Mille Endormis, the technically playful Blank Out (on a turgid subject), and a heavy-duty Jakob Lenz.

Laurent Pelly's production of La Fille du régiment returns to Covent Garden

French soprano Sabine Devieilhe seems to find feisty adolescence a neat fit. I first encountered her when she assumed the role of a pill-popping nightclubbing ‘Beauty’ - raced from ecstasy-induced wonder to emergency ward - when I reviewed the DVD of Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production of Handel’s Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno at Aix-en-Provence in 2016.

The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny in Aix

Make no mistake, this is about you! Jim laid-out dead on the stage floor, conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen brought his very loud orchestra (London’s Philharmonia) to an abrupt halt. Black out. The maestro then turned his spotlighted face to confront us and he held his stare. There was no mistake, the music was about us.

Mozart's Travels: Classical Opera and The Mozartists at Wigmore Hall

There was a full house at Wigmore Hall for Classical Opera’s/The Mozartists’ final concert of the 2018-19 season: a musical paysage which chartered, largely chronologically, Mozart’s youthful travels from London to The Hague, on to Paris, then Rome, concluding - following stop-overs in European cultural cities such as Munich and Vienna - with an arrival at his final destination, Prague.

Tosca in Aix

From the sublime — the Mozart Requiem — to the ridiculous, namely stage director Christophe Honoré's Tosca. A ridiculous waste of operatic resources.

A terrific, and terrifying, The Turn of the Screw at Garsington

One might describe Christopher Oram’s set for Louisa Muller’s new production of The Turn of the Screw at Garsington as ‘shabby chic’ … if it wasn’t so sinister.

Mozart Requiem in Aix

Pierre Audi, now the directeur général of the Festival d’Aix as well as the artistic director of New York City’s Park Avenue Armory opens a new era for this distinguished opera festival in the south of France with a new work by the Festival’s signature composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

A Rachmaninov Drama at Middle Temple Hall

It is Rachmaninov’s major works for orchestra - the Second and Third Piano Concertos, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, the Symphonic Dances - alongside the All-Night Vespers and the music for solo piano, which have earned the composer a permanent place in the concert repertoire today.

Fun, Frothy, and Frivolous: L’elisir d’amore at Las Vegas

There are a dizzying array of choices for music entertainment in Las Vegas ranging from Celine Dion and Cher to Paul McCartney and Aerosmith. Admittedly, these performers are a far cry from opera, but the point is that Las Vegas residents have many options when it comes to live music.

McVicar's production of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro returns to the Royal Opera House

David McVicar's production of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has been a remarkable success since it debuted in 2006. Set with the Count of Almaviva's fearfully grand household in 1830, McVicar's trick is to surround the principals by servants in a supra-naturalistic production which emphasises how privacy is at a premium.

The Cunning Little Vixen at the Barbican Hall

The presence of a large cast of ‘animals’ in Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen can encourage directors and designers to create costume-confections ranging from Disney-esque schmaltz to grim naturalism.

Barbe-Bleue in Lyon

Stage director Laurent Pelly is famed for his Offenbach stagings, above all others his masterful rendering of Les Contes d’Hoffmann as a nightmare. Mr. Pelly has staged eleven of Offenbach’s ninety-nine operettas over the years (coincidently this production of Barbe-Bleue is Mr. Pelly’s ninety-eighth opera staging).

The Princeton Festival Presents Nixon in China

The Princeton Festival has adopted a successful and sophisticated operatic programming strategy, whereby the annual opera alternates between a standard warhorse and a less known, more challenging work. Last year Princeton presented Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. This year the choice is Nixon in China by modern American composer John Adams, which opened before a nearly full house of appreciative listeners.

Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel at Grange Park Opera

When Engelbert Humperdinck's sister, Adelheid Wette, wrote the libretto to Hansel and Gretel the idea of a poor family living in a hut near the woods, on the bread-line, would have had an element of realism to it despite the sentimental layers which Wette adds to the tale.

Handel’s Belshazzar at The Grange Festival

What a treat to see members of The Sixteen letting their hair down. This was no strait-laced post-concert knees-up, but a full on, drunken orgy at the court of the most hedonistic ruler in the Old Testament.

Don Giovanni in Paris

A brutalist Don Giovanni at the Palais Garnier, Belgian set designer Jan Versweyveld installed three huge, a vista raw cement towers that overwhelmed the Opéra Garnier’s Second Empire opulence. The eight principals faced off in a battle royale instigated by stage director Ivo van Hove. Conductor Philippe Jordan thrust the Mozart score into the depths of expressionistic conflict.

A riveting Rake’s Progress from Snape Maltings at the Aldeburgh Festival

Based on Hogarth’s 18th-century morality tale in eight paintings and with a pithy libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman, Stravinsky’s operatic farewell to Neo-classicism charts Tom Rakewell’s ironic ‘progress’ from blissful ignorance to Bedlam.

The Gardeners: a new opera by Robert Hugill

‘When war shall cease this lonely unknown spot,/ Of many a pilgrimage will be the end,/ And flowers will shine in this now barren plot/ And fame upon it through the years descend:/ But many a heart upon each simple cross/ Will hang the grief, the memory of its loss.’

Richard Jones's Boris Godunov returns to Covent Garden

There are never any real surprises with a Richard Jones production and Covent Garden’s Boris Godunov, first seen in 2016, is typical of Jones’s approach: it’s boxy, it’s ascetic, it’s over-bright, with minimalism turned a touch psychedelic in the visuals.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Scene from Jeanne d'Arc - Szenen aus dem Leben der Heiligen Johanna [Photo by Thomas Aurin courtesy of Deutsche Oper Berlin]
21 Nov 2012

Joan of Arc as Atheist Heroine

Jeanne D’Arc—Szenen aus dem Leben der Heiligen Johanna, the last stage work of the German composer Walter Braunfels, documents a passage in music history that has only recently begun to break through the surface.

Joan of Arc as Atheist Heroine

By Rebecca Schmid

Above: Scene from Jeanne d’Arc — Szenen aus dem Leben der Heiligen Johanna

Photos by Thomas Aurin courtesy of Deutsche Oper Berlin

 

Although the composer enjoyed widespread popularity in the mid-1920s with his opera Die Vögel and religious works such as his Te Deum which curried favour with the devout statesman Konrad Adenauer, Braunfels’ antagonism toward the Nazis and half-Jewish heritage led to a ban on his music starting in 1933. It was not until 2001 that Jeanne D’Arc, written at the height of the war between 1938-43, was unveiled to the public with a concert performance in Stockholm starring Juliane Banse and conducted by Manfred Honneck. Seven years later, the Deutsche Oper engaged the late directing provocateur Christoph Schlingensief to conceive what would be the opera’s staged premiere.

Often interpreted as a reaction to the brutality of the Holocaust, Jeanne D’Arc expresses a desperate belief in the powers of the divine to redeem the spiritually pure from the persecution of a society blinded by false values. The French martyr and Catholic saint Joan of Arc had of course already conjured operas by Giuseppe Verdi and Arthur Honegger, yet it was a performance of Hindemith’s subversive Mathis der Maler that moved Braunfels to pen his own libretto and carry forth with a religiously laden opera. Choruses lifted from Passion oratorios intermingle with blocks of extended tonality that evoke Wagner and Strauss without creating a hypnotic sense of inebriation. The most interesting passages emerge in the unpredictable harmonic development and sardonic trumpet fanfares at the start of the second act that give full expression to Braunfels’ unassuaged frustration.

It is a shame that Schlingensief’s production, revived for three performances this season and seen November 16, adopts an atheist critique of western Christianity that is subsequently drowned in silly, morbid gags and distracting video projections (executed with Anna-Sophie Mahler and Søren Schuhmacher). Footage ranging from shots of a Nepalese village, where a wreathed corpse is burned in a religious process, to the juxtaposition of church boys with references to Mafia activity only misconstrues Braunfels’ simple allegory. Images of Schlingensief himself among the Nepalese and the oversized anatomical set of lungs that descend downstage may make this staging a fascinating historical document (the director died of lung cancer in 2010), but he imposes more on this opera than he illuminates. Ultimately, it is hard to justify the expense that went into the rotating stage’s convolution of scenes (designs by Thomas George and Thekla von Müllheim).

A live cow emerges as an ostensible symbol for Johanna when the wife of the Knight Baudricourt insists that she should be set free to bring an end to pestilence in the village, accompanied by a nonsensical sign reading “Tote Kuh fällt vom Schnurrbart” (the dead cow falls from its whiskers). Gaggles of midgets in nun suits and projections of animal insides are enough to make one cringe, but the distaste reaches its peak in an extra with cerebral palsy who, dressed in a crown and gymnast’s suit (costumes by Aino Laberenz), writhes in spasms with the music until he is smothered in fake blood and chokes with suicidal gags for what felt like much too long. Although the character’s symbolic presence as an extension of the King’s suffering eventually makes itself clear, the exploitation of a disabled individual to this artistic end is questionable at best. Schlingensief surely intended to make a statement in favour of tolerance for all human beings, but his warped concept of social activism only undermines the historical value of Braunfels’ opera. The director also replaces some of the Inquisitor’s seminal lines with the spoken words of a midget, such as the final “We have burned a holy being!” The effect is perverse and detracts from the weight of the story. Just as ridiculous is the moment when Joan of Arc emerges as a black-faced death angel from an oversized birthday cake, only to light flickering candles as a symbol of her burning at the stake.

Joan_318.gif 

Despite the tremendous stamina and purity of tone American soprano Mary Mills brought to the title character, she was hampered by the stilted stage concept. Rarely has there been a better example of Regietheater’s power to undermine the presence of impeccable, if not so thespian-oriented, musicianship. The rich-voiced English baritone Simon Neal gave a standout performance as Joan’s ally, Gilles de Rais, and Kim-Lilian Strebel and Annie Rosen made for a prettily sung, homogeneous pair as her female patron saints Katharina and Margarete. In the role of St. Michael, the tenor Paul McNamara gave an earnest delivery but suffered from a somewhat swallowed timbre; the orchestra of the Deutsche Oper under Matthias Foremny also could have helped matters by producing more restrained pianissimi.

Clemens Bieber made for an affecting King, even if one had to avert one’s eyes from the cartoonish portrayal Schlingensief set out to achieve. Tobias Kehrer gave a warm portrayal of Johanna’s father, Jacob, entering the stage in bishop garb on a reindeer sled, and the nasal timbre of Paul Kaufmann made for an appropriately pathetic portrait of the shepherd Colin. Jörg Schörner gave a fine performance in the role of the sympathizing Duke of Alençon, while Lenus Carlson made for an imposing Duke de la Trémouille. Yosep Kang also stood out as Bertrand de Poulengy. The orchestra of the Deutsche Oper was stronger in soaring lyric lines than complex polyphony, with the brass especially smudged. The house chorus also did not sound as rehearsed as usual despite its reliably strong performance. Several seats were empty after intermission, a rare occurrence in Berlin. Perhaps it would have made more sense to focus on this musical specimen in concert performance, which is exactly what the Salzburg Festival has planned for 2013.

Rebecca Schmid

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):