11 May 2013
Frankfurt's Intriguing Idomeneo
Once upon a time, Frankfurt Opera had the baddest ass reputation in Germany as “the” cutting edge producer of must-see opera.
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. Under the neon-glare of laboratory strip-lights, the scientists and literary archeologists rout through the relics, scrape away palimpsests, shatter the printing presses, and uncover a shocking tale of violence, sex, suicide and cannibalism. ‘Strip the cities of brick,’ they cry; ‘Cancel all flights from the international airport.’ Yet, despite its ‘distance’ - both historical and aesthetic - this disturbing juxtaposition of innocence and monstrosity unsettles and seeps into our modern consciousness, like ink staining parchment.
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’.
As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.
Heading to N.Y.C and D.C. for its annual performances, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra invited Semyon Bychkov to return for his Mahler debut with the Fifth Symphony. Having recently returned from Vienna with praise for their rendition, the orchestra now presented it at their homebase.
Igor Stravinsky's lost Funeral Song, (Chante funèbre) op 5 conducted by Valery Gergiev at the Mariinsky in St Petersburg This extraordinary performance was infinitely more than an ordinary concert, even for a world premiere of an unknown work.
On Tuesday evening this week, I found myself at The Actors Centre in London’s Covent Garden watching a performance of Unknowing, a dramatization of Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben and Dichterliebe (in a translation by David Parry, in which Matthew Monaghan directed a baritone and a soprano as they enacted a narrative of love, life and loss. Two days later at the Wigmore Hall I enjoyed a wonderful performance, reviewed here, by countertenor Philippe Jaroussky with Julien Chauvin’s Le Concert de la Loge, of cantatas by Telemann and J.S. Bach.
Here is one of the next new great conductors. That’s a bold statement, but even the L.A. Times agrees: Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s appointment “is the biggest news in the conducting world.” But Ms. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla will be getting a lot of weight on her shoulders.
Once upon a time, Frankfurt Opera had the baddest ass reputation in Germany as “the” cutting edge producer of must-see opera.
Never mind that the not-to-be-ignored ‘interpretations’ had to be ‘different’ at all costs; or that (often rankling) ‘insider’ concepts by groupie-inspiring-directors had to be explained (if indeed that were possible) with extensive program notes; or that decent enough singers were sometimes secondary to the buzz-worthy ‘event.’ The city opera house on the Main River was a place to see and be seen, challenge and be challenged.
And then prime movers and shakers moved out, and the company seemed shaken indeed not only by those high profile departures, but also by devastating budget cuts in the last Time of Austerity. They almost cut the chorus entirely, for crying out loud! What followed was a well-intended but languishing period when the company’s productions unwillingly digressed from ‘shock and awe’ to ‘schlock and awful’ on more than a few occasions.
But happily in recent seasons, the old rebel spark is decidedly back in force (mercifully moderated by common sense), the overall quality of the singers is once again high, and the half-hearted air that seemed to inhabit nearly a decade of shows has lifted. Witness their new, modern dress, cogent spin on Mozart’s opera seria Idomeneo which is extremely well-served by its wholly comprehensible Konzept.
Stage Director Jan Philipp Gloger has set out to actually tell the story (*gasp*) while informing it with a contemporary resonance. War references feature soldiers that could have come out of today’s conflicts. Karin Jud’s costumes successfully define the aristocrats and refugees/prisoners in modern terms, and the Naval uniforms ably establish a hierarchy of a military (and political) chain of command. Mr. Gloger’s intentions have been well-served by a collaborative set design (Franziska Bornkamm) that is at once blissfully simple and wonderfully varied thanks to the ingenious use of Frankfurt’s massive turntable. Bearing a huge white wall with massive double doors that bisects up-stage from down-, it rotates frequently to reveal ever more interesting “rooms” in Idomeneo’s realm. The space is effectively re-defined with well-chosen set pieces that include a desk, Nautilus set, hospital bed, podium, press conference set-up, catafalque and more.
The director has blocked the action to facilitate highly detailed character relationships, and has made full use of the vast playing space with well-motivated and dramatically telling movement. Gloger masterfully uses diverse levels and groupings, witness the stylized ‘group hug’ by title character, Idamante, Ilia and Elettra in the great quartet. Too, the dramatic tension between Ilia and various others was physicalized in unusually contentious, even brutal confrontations. Exciting stuff.
Only the transition to the shore left me wanting something more. It was all well and good to have the massive wall disappear into the flies, and I accepted the modern suitcases littered about like toppled gravestones. But as the bits of ‘flotsam and jetsam’ were blown onstage by hidden fans, did the strands of debris have to be black, sparkly cuttings from a slit plastic glitter curtain? Not damaging, but it seemed at odds with other more sober scenic effects. The whole evening’s story telling was exceptionally well-lit by Jan Hartmann with well tightly crafted specials, atmospheric gel colors, good area washes and excellent focus of the action.
All in all, the staging made absolute sense within its chosen convention. I loved introducing Idamante as a boy given a toy boat by Idomeneo in a flashback. When the adult Idamante then bounded on stage he was first still carrying the boat, which spoke volumes about his youthfulness, his unconditional love for his father, and his place in succession to the throne as a future naval hero. The presentation of Idomeneo as a war veteran, first on crutches and later in a wheelchair had great meaning. And having his suffering require sedation and confinement to a hospital bed set up one of the show’s best and most mysterious effects.
For the sacrifice of Idamante, a stunning backdrop gets pulled in depicting a site crowded with ancient ruins. When it comes time for Idomeneo to kill his son, it is the boy-extra who enters and mouths the words as the adult Idamante sings upstage. For a while, it all seems disorienting until. . .it is all cunningly revealed to have been a drug-induced hallucination by the hospitalized hero. This proved a real stunner of an interpretive twist, an absolutely honest one that injected truthful spontaneity into what can be a stilted theatrical moment.
The huge revolving wall also facilitated/masked some amazing “dissolves,” such as when the entire chorus seemed to have disappeared in the blink of an eye, leaving an empty press conference room at the end. Or when Idomeneo’s negative fantasy of Ilia and Idamante is revealed as a steamy sex scene with the two in bed together, only to have vanished when the setting came back ‘round.
Misfires? Yeah, a couple moments might be re-considered like Idomeneo’s very brief attempted rape of Ilia. Or having the boy-as-sacrifice mouth every single word Idamante sings off stage rather than simply having the boy gesture. Or Elettra’s powder blue business suit that rendered her unnecessarily matronly, with an unflattering wig that she ripped off a couple of times. But these were quite minor distractions in what was a pretty terrific take on Mozart’s dramatic masterpiece.
Best of all, Frankfurt peopled this inventive production with a truly first rate cast of singing actors. The title role is surely the best, and most difficult tenor role Mozart ever created. It has severely tested any number of first-string performers over the years, but it seemed to hold no terror for the resourceful Roberto Saccà. Having begun his career as a light tenor, in the intervening years Mr. Saccà has imbued his refulgent tone with a good deal of weight, resulting in a robust, even delivery. The trade-off is that the youthful sweetness in his mid-lower range tends to become a mite tremulous when pressed, but the pay-off is that his meaty high notes soar. His fiercely accurate, propulsive rendition of Fuor del mar was downright definitive.
Elsa van den Heever is not only a house favorite, she has been branching out to conquer hearts with major companies throughout the world (the latest with her recent Met debut). The diva’s praiseworthy spinto was a good match for Elettra, and while she could zing out a phrase with aplomb, she could also scale back her tone to a filigree of melting beauty. Her superlative way with serene utterances were all prelude to a powerfully demented fury that she unleashed with her showpiece D’Oreste d’Ajace.
Juanita Lascarro was the darkest-voice Ilia I have yet encountered, which added an interesting dynamic to the musical texture. Ms. Lascarro proved a spirited persona dominating her every scene, although her impassioned delivery found her forcefully trilling her “r’s” a bit too much for my taste. Given that she slightly covers her voice, the result was that Juanita had an admirable way with legato phrases and could float high notes that were very affecting. That said, when she pressed the top more powerfully, forte notes tended to spread.
Martin Mitterutzner was a revelation as a fresh-voiced, fresh-faced Idamanate. Lanky and boyishly handsome, Mr. Mitterutzner complemented his committed acting with a robust lyric tenor that had power and style. Company member Julien Prégardien displayed all his familiar strengths (uncanny musicianship, gently pleasing tone, and clean melismas) and an occasional weakness (the very top notes don’t turn over and get a bit straight), but his seasoned delivery as Arbace was a success.
Young Beau Gibson showed off an exceptionally pleasing, youthful tone married to a witty impersonation as the High Priest. As Neptune, lean and wiry actor Olaf Reinecke seemed to meld the Ancient Mariner and Freddy Kruger (Nightmare on Elm Street) in equal parts, as he lurked, menaced, proffered weapons, and generally behaved doggone unpleasantly. The four soloists (Cretans and Trojans) drawn from the Frankfurt chorus were all uniformly fine: Camilla Suzana Peteu, Thomas Charrois, Yvonne Hettegger, and Pere Llompart. Their winning featured moments speak well for the quality and depth of the vocal ensemble who excelled under Chorus Master Matthias Köhler’s tutelage.
In the pit Julia Jones elicited exciting results from the resident orchestra. For once the rather dry acoustic was a plus, as the individual colors of the instruments were highlighted without taking away from a smooth, clean, well-oiled ensemble. Perhaps there was nothing radically revelatory about Maestra Jones’s straightforward interpretation, but she hit all the musical marks, the drama was always well served, and the singers were superbly partnered.
Having visited Frankfurt Opera happily and often during the ten years I lived there, what a joy it was to re-live (and perhaps reclaim) the ‘glory days’ with this inspired, well-crafted performance.
Idomeneo: Roberto Saccà; Idamante: Martin Mitterutzner; Ilia: Juanita Lascarro; Elettra: Elsa van den Heever; Arbace: Julian Prégardien; Neptune’s High Priest: Beau Gibson; Voice: Philipp Alexander Mehr; Neptune: Olaf Reinecke; Two Cretans: Camilla Suzana Peteu, Thomas Charrois; Two Trojans: Yvonne Hettegger, Pere Llompart; Conductor: Julia Jones; Stage Director: Jan Philipp Gloger; Set Design: Franziska Bornkamm; Costume Design: Karin Jud; Lighting Design: Jan Hartmann; Chorus Master: Matthias Köhler