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

La Périchole in Marseille

The most notable of all Péricholes of Offenbach’s sentimental operetta is surely the legendary Hortense Schneider who created the role back in 1868 at Paris’ Théâtre des Varietés. Alas there is no digital record.

Three Centuries Collide: Widmann, Ravel and Beethoven

It’s very rare that you go to a concert and your expectation of it is completely turned on its head. This was one of those. Three works, each composed exactly a century apart, beginning and ending with performances of such clarity and brilliance.

Seventeenth-century rhetoric from The Sixteen at Wigmore Hall

‘Yes, in my opinion no rhetoric more persuadeth or hath greater power over the mind; hath not Musicke her figures, the same which Rhetorique? What is a but her Antistrophe? her reports, but sweet Anaphora's? her counterchange of points, Antimetabole's? her passionate Aires but Prosopopoea's? with infinite other of the same nature.’

Hrůša’s Mahler: A Resurrection from the Golden Age

Jakub Hrůša has an unusual gift for a conductor and that is to make the mightiest symphony sound uncommonly intimate. There were many moments during this performance of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony where he grappled with its monumental scale while reducing sections of it to chamber music; times when the power of his vision might crack the heavens apart and times when a velvet glove imposed the solitude of prayer.

Full-Throated Troubador Serenades San José

Verdi’s sublimely memorable melodies inform and redeem his setting of the dramatically muddled Il Trovatore, the most challenging piece to stage of his middle-period successes.

Opera North deliver a chilling Turn of the Screw

Storm Dennis posed no disruption to this revival of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, first unveiled at Leeds Grand Theatre in 2010, but there was plenty of emotional turbulence.

Luisa Miller at English National Opera

Verdi's Luisa Miller occupies an important position in the composer's operatic output. Written for Naples in 1849, the work's genesis was complex owing to problems with the theatre and the Neapolitan censors.

Eugène Onéguine in Marseille

A splendid 1997 provincial production of Tchaikovsky’s take on Pushkin’s Bryonic hero found its way onto a major Provençal stage just now. The historic Opéra Municipal de Marseille possesses a remarkable acoustic that allowed the Pushkin verses to flow magically through Tchaikovsky’s ebullient score.

Opera Undone: Tosca and La bohème

If opera can sometimes seem unyieldingly conservative, even reactionary, it made quite the change to spend an evening hearing and seeing something which was so radically done.

A refined Acis and Galatea at Cadogan Hall

The first performance of Handel's two-act Acis and Galatea - variously described as a masque, serenata, pastoral or ‘little opera’ - took place in the summer of 1718 at Cannons, the elegant residence of James Brydges, Earl of Carnavon and later Duke of Chandos.

Lise Davidsen: A superlative journey through the art of song

Are critics capable of humility? The answer should always be yes, yet I’m often surprised how rare it seems to be. It took the film critic of The Sunday Times, Dilys Powell, several decades to admit she had been wrong about Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, a film excoriated on its release in 1960. It’s taken me considerably less time - and largely because of this astounding recital - to realise I was very wrong about Lise Davidsen.

Parsifal in Toulouse

Aurélien Bory, director of a small, avant garde theater company in Toulouse, staged a spellbinding Parsifal at the Théâtre du Capitole, Toulouse’s famed Orchestre National du Capitole in the pit — FYI the Capitole is Toulouse’s city hall, the opera house is a part of it.

An Evening with Rosina Storchio: Ermonela Jaho at Wigmore Hall

‘The world’s most acclaimed Soprano’: the programme booklet produced for Ermonela Jaho’s Wigmore Hall debut was keen to emphasise the Albanian soprano’s prestigious status, as judged by The Economist, and it was standing-room only at the Hall which was full to capacity with Jaho’s fervent fans and opera-lovers.

Parsifal in Palermo

Richard Wagner chose to finish his Good Friday opera while residing in Sicily’s Palermo, partaking of the natural splendors of its famed verdant basin, the Conca d’Oro, and reveling in the golden light of its surreal Monreale cathedral.

Vladimir Jurowski conducts a magnificent Siegfried

“Siegfried is the Man of the Future, the man we wish, the man we will, but cannot make, and the man who must create himself through our annihilation.” This was Richard Wagner, writing in 1854, his thoughts on Siegfried. The hero of Wagner’s Siegfried, however, has quite some journey to travel before he gets to the vision the composer described in that letter to August Roeckel. Watching Torsten Kerl’s Siegfried in this - largely magnificent - concert performance one really wondered how tortuous a journey this would be.

I Capuleti e i Montecchi in Rome

Shakespearean sentiments may gracefully enrich Gounod’s Romeo et Juliet, but powerful Baroque tensions enthrall us in the bel canto complexities of Vincenzo Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi. Conductor Daniele Gatti’s offered a truly fine bel canto evening at Rome’s Teatro dell’Opera introducing a trio of fine young artists.

Santtu-Matias Rouvali makes versatile debut with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

Finnish conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali has been making waves internationally for some time. The chief conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra is set to take over from Esa-Pekka Salonen as principal conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra in 2021.

Tristan und Isolde in Bologna

East German stage director Ralf Pleger promised us a Tristan unlike anything we had ever seen. It was indeed. And Slovakian conductor Jura Valčuha gave us a Tristan as never before heard. All of this just now in the most Wagnerian of all Italian cities — Bologna!


Seductively morbid – The Fall of the House of Usher in The Hague

What does it feel like to be depressed? “It’s like water seeping into my heart” is how one young sufferer put it.

Daring Pairing Doubles the Fun by Pacific Opera Project

Puccini’s only comedy, the one act Gianni Schicchi is most often programmed with a second short piece of tragic fare, but the adventurous Pacific Opera Project has banked on a fanciful Ravel opus to sustain the mood and send the audience home with tickled ribs and gladdened hearts.

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):