08 May 2014
Baden-Baden: Proficient Puccini as Easter Treat
Baden’s Easter Festival centerpiece was a solid production of Manon Lescaut that was well-intended, well-designed, and well-performed.
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.
Baden’s Easter Festival centerpiece was a solid production of Manon Lescaut that was well-intended, well-designed, and well-performed.
Everything about this production was lavished with the highest production standards. The stars were first tier. The staging and designs were fresh and eye-catching. The pit was peopled with some of the best musicians in the world. So then, why was I left somewhat wanting at curtain fall? Hmmmm.
Perhaps it was that the assembled forces worked so hard at ‘play-acting’ the fire of passion, that they forgot to put any real firewood in the stove. Much of what was on display seemed ‘busy’ and externalized, when the youthful score cries out for internalized commitment and sincerity to complete it. Too, re-setting the story during the German Occupation of France, while not really damaging, did little to ground it in the proper emotional frame of reference.
Disclaimer: I adore Eva Maria Westbroek. Ever since I thrilled to her triumph at the Paris Opera in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (one of the greatest performances I have ever experienced) I have been won over by every subsequent encounter. And Ms. Westbroek certainly does well enough by Manon. Her full-bodied, generous soprano has an über-feminine appeal that communicates especially well once past the naiveté of Act I. She is a fearless actress, entering into each confrontation scene or sexual encounter with abandon. She invests her lines with dramatic coloring, and she can crest over the orchestra one minute, and scale down to sweet piano phrasings the next, although the voice occasionally loses pliability coming off high volume singing. Eva is a consummate vocal actress, and the coloring in the death scene was profound.
That said, the timbre of the voice is not quite the right fit for this particular heroine. The silver and cream that are needed to limn such passages as In quelle trine morbide are not hers to command. And she was not well-served by her costumes, a pity since otherwise Fotini Dimou designed uncommonly fine attire for the production. Ms. Westbroek has a somewhat generous figure, and the period silhouette was not as flattering as another era may have been. Puccini’s Minnie (Fanciulla) proved a fine match for the talented soprano. His Manon Lescaut seems less so, and while she is incapable of giving less than 110%, I wonder if she will continue to pursue the part. All the admirable craft was on full display, but the final sheen was missing.
As Des Grieux, Massimo Giordano has a lot going for him. He is HD-telecast-Poster-Boy handsome, cutting a lean and youthful figure. If only his tenor were not also ‘quite’ so lean. He was never ineffective, and his Italianate lyric sound was bright and clean. I feared for his success at the start when his conversational delivery was nearly inaudible. By the time he launched into Tra voi, belle, brune e bionde, Mr. Giordano was on firmer ground, and the voice grew in confidence and stature as the act progressed.
But to an audience of a certain age (that would include me), for better or worse, we have Placido and Luciano in our ears in this role. Massimo is a fine artist with a committed delivery and absolute understanding of the character and how to vary his expression. While he is well-suited to Massenet’s Des Grieux (which he has also performed), Puccini’s big climaxes are ‘just’ beyond his reach. To his credit, he paces himself well, his voice is well-schooled and attractive, and he knows how to approximate the required spinto heft by tightening up his focus and straightening the tone. It works. . .for now.
Lester Lynch was a pleasure to hear as Lescaut. Mr. Lynch has a ravishing, rolling baritone with power to spare, and excellent hook-up from top to bottom. His assured vocalizing was impressive and welcome. As Geronte, Liang Li unleashed a malevolent, dark, searing voice that was not only deployed with craft and power, but was also capable of subtlety and nuance. Young Romanian tenor Bogdan Mihai was boyishly appealing as Edmondo, one of the best-rounded, spontaneous performances of the night. His effortless lyric tenor and coltish, animated stage movement brought considerable life and sparkle to Act I. He was having such a good time as the joking student that it was infectious. All the featured roles were well taken, and in a bit of luxury casting, Magdalena Kožená commanded our attention as the Singer in Manon’s boudoir. Walter Zeh’s chorus was excellent throughout, dramatically engaged and musically precise.
The ‘Festival’ aura was largely provided by the Berlin Philharmonic’s informed reading under the accomplished baton of Simon Rattle. Merely having one of the world’s top orchestras present in the pit is cause for rejoicing, of course, and there is considerable pride in, and buzz about having landed their services. But they earned their prolonged enthusiastic ovations honestly with a performance that revealed colors and gradations that usually get over-looked. Maestro Rattle presided over a well-shaped rendition that not only capitalized on Puccini’s early promise, but also maximized the effect of less well-developed passages. What score doesn’t benefit from virtuosic playing? Manon Lescaut never had it so good.
If the physical production posed more questions than it answered, it was never uninteresting, frequently captivating, and always thought-provoking. We were seldom allowed to forget that France was being occupied, and the looming menace of soldiers intent on enforcing order was ever present.
Rob Howell has designed imposing sets that seem to be a skewed version of French locales as re-imagined in the style of overstated Fascist monolithic architecture. At curtain rise we are bowled over by stage-filling circular stone steps (slightly akimbo), a colonnade atop the stairs with a train station high upstage (yes, Manon arrives on a train to grand effect). Stage right main floor and stair area is filled with students and “citoyens” milling and partying, provoking the soldiers to nervously close ranks whenever the group activity go too synchronized. Stage left there is an Art Nouveau “inn” with practical balcony, and a down stage settee perfect for more intimate moments. Peter Mumford has lit the production beautifully, nowhere more so then in this opening setting with its different areas, and varied interiors.
With his production team, director Richard Eyre has devised some intriguing interpretations. For one, this production is far sexier than usual. Bottoms get grabbed, legs are kissed, petting is encouraged, and breasts are there to be fondled. This inhibition establishes an atmosphere that informs (excuses?) Manon’s fecklessness.
I loved the addition of a tango dancer (Saulo Garrido) in the bedroom entertainment mix. Having him dance first with Manon, and then adding Geronte, titillated us with a ‘three-way’ image, all the while it established that Manon and Geronte were clearly still having an active sexual relationship. When Des Grieux returns to her and the great Act II duet commences, clothes get removed during a seductive cat and mouse game and the pair winds up in bed. I loved Manon’s high-school-girlish taunting of Geronte as he discovers the indiscreet pair.
Mr. Howell’s setting again impressed, the whole founded on another version of big rounded stairs (now stage left), with an entrance door high atop, and a (poorly kept) secret escape door under the staircase down left. The huge painted screen facilitated costume changes, the bed was sumptuously appointed and the floor-to-ceiling windows rising stage right powerfully communicated the wealthy environment. In the direction, there was a lot of playful jostling invented between the heroine and her brother that alleviated her well-established boredom. In fact, Lescaut had much more dimension than usual, and he actually came in wounded in Act III when the gunfire started, adding yet another dynamic.
That dock setting boasted a massive rounded platform above jail cells, with a looming prow of a ship above and behind it all. The ship accommodated a drummer that added good effect to the deportation scene, which was notable for its masterful uses of levels. For that pesky and troublesome “desert” scene, Mr. Eyre’s version was set in the massive ruins of scenic elements we had already experienced, suggesting psychological ruins. A bold stroke that made as much sense as a desert in Louisiana.
All in all then, Baden-Baden’s Manon Lescaut was a formidable achievement. It just seemed curiously to be the wrong one.
Cast and production information:
Manon Lescaut: Eva-Maria Westbroek; Lescaut: Lester Lynch; Chevalier Des Grieux: Massimo Giordano; Geronte de Ravoir: Liang Li; Edmondo: Bogdan Mihai; Innkeeper/Sea Captain: Reinhard Dorn; Singer: Magdalena Kožená; Ballet Master: Kresimir Spicer; Lamplighter: Arthur Spiritu; Sergeant: Johannes Kammler; Tango Dancer: Saulo Garrido; Conductor: Simon Rattle; Director: Richard Eyre; Set Design: Rob Howell; Costume Design: Fotini Dimou; Lighting Design: Peter Mumford; Chorus Master: Walter Zeh