Sunday, October 26, 2014

Ich habe genug: Bach and Brahms with the BSO

This past weekend took me to Boston; having learned that Bryn Terfel and Rosemary Joshua would be performing in Brahms’ Requiem with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, it was to the first of their concerts I repaired on Thursday night. A poignant “Ich habe genug” was paired with Brahms’ sweeping choral masterpiece, and it was interesting to compare the emotional complexities and musical modes of expression in the two pieces, with their different relationships to the tradition of German sacred music. Another unexpected revelation was the performance of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, who offered a compelling and nuanced exploration of Brahms’ vast harmonic and emotional landscapes.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Compiersi debbe l'opra fatale: Macbeth at the Met

This won't end well. Macbeth, Act II. Photo (c) Met Opera
What a difference a performance makes. I saw Verdi's Macbeth at the Met a few seasons ago, and left feeling somewhat worn out by a sense of incoherence. Last night, I left exhilarated. I'm still less than impressed by Adrian Noble's 2007 production; it works smoothly and effectively, but I'd like a stronger connection drawn between the dysfunctional court (the system is broken before the Macbeths take a dagger to it) and the plundered landscapes and disillusioned populace. And I still don't fully get the dowdy, vicious witches, like a misogynist/nightmare version of St. Mary Mead gossips (maybe my problem is trying to "get" the Macbeth witches.) In any case, this time, Verdi's opera emerged as a grippingly unorthodox whole, thrillingly played and sung. The Met orchestra, under Fabio Luisi, took control from the first moments; their playing was clean, propulsive, and nuanced. Gothic-cliché shivers were sent down my spine as the orchestra clairvoyantly mourned the destruction, or underpinned festivities with ironic gaiety. Fabio Luisi conducted with fearless brio, and all the sections worked admirably together to create a well-proportioned melodrama. (I borrow the word melodrama from a Luigi Dallapiccola article on Verdi's musical language, printed here.) The chorus was likewise excellent--intelligible, energetic, and creepy. The prophecy scene was appropriately uncanny; the murderers' chorus and "Macbetto, Macbetto ov'è?" were standouts. "Patria oppressa" also made an unusual impression on me, but this may be because I had been talking about the Risorgimento that morning. The casting of the principals, moreover, was luxurious. Anna Netrebko deserves the plaudits she's been getting for her deliciously unhinged Lady, but there wasn't a weak link among the principals.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Le Nozze di Figaro: E schiatti il signor Conte...

Act II: Majeski, Mattei, Abdrazakov, Petersen. Photo (c) Ken Howard/Met Opera
The season having been saved, the Met opened with an engagingly sung, orchestrally luxurious Nozze di Figaro. I don't think I know anyone who loves opera and doesn't love this one, where polish and depth are never at odds. I'd witnessed with pain the disintegration of the previous production, but was worried by a casual invocation of Downton Abbey in promotional materials for this one; the villa of the Almavivas is not Downton; it's Gosford Park. In the event, Richard Eyre's glossy 1930s setting proved essentially traditional in its choreographic and interpretative choices. The direction was, to its credit, sensitive to the music, and the relationships between characters and space were well-expressed. There were even moments in individual performances that made me consider text and melody anew: always especially welcome in this inexhaustibly rich opera. Although I wished the emotional stakes of the production had been higher, it was at least not naive about misogyny or economic exploitation, and there was a nod to interwar Orientalism. More might still have been made of the social tensions brewing in the house and outside it, a stronger structure given for the benefit of subsequent revivals (and audiences.) There is no wireless; there are no newspapers, no magazines anywhere. For all Eyre's talk of the electric atmosphere of the '30s, there was very little evidence of it in the relationships between the characters, or in the production.

James Levine's chemistry with the Met orchestra is always a delight to hear. Their Nozze was characterized by unusually deliberate tempi (sometimes, to my mind, less than successful; sometimes, as in "Non so più," revelatory.) The orchestral reading also had a sense of ceremony that I don't often associate with this opera, where everything is to play for. The orchestral detail was invariably gorgeous, however, with the woodwinds deserving special acclaim for their evocation of atmospheric and emotional background. The harpsichordist was a humorist, providing commentary on the not-infrequent sequences of concealment and conspiracy. Although there were sometimes slight discrepancies between singer and pit tempi in arias (surprising to me, but minor,) the matching of stage movement to orchestral punctuation was unerringly precise. Levine and the orchestral forces, as well as the singers, deserve credit for the nuanced and expressive phrasing of the recitative.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Richard Tucker Day: A reverential mission and a free concert

One of my favorite things about Tucker Foundation events is the relentlessly informal atmosphere that pervades the preliminaries, regardless of how showy the arias or sparkling the gowns in the ensuing recital. To mark Richard Tucker Day on Thursday, the foundation sponsored two free concerts; to the second of these, held in the evening, I went with the Beloved Flatmate (emerita.) The auditorium of the New York Society for Ethical Culture (pictured) turned out to have favorable acoustics, and we were able to slip into a third-row seat without any trouble. While smaller than the audience for the Gala, this one was noticeably younger and more diverse, as I was pleased to note. Despite the line stretching well down the block for admission, I was surprised that there wasn't a larger turnout for a free concert with musicians of this caliber. Rising young artists and headlining stars gave mostly-showy pieces from a cross-section of the operatic repertoire stretching from early Mozart to Boito and Bizet, and, in the second half of the program, ventured into hits from American musicals to great effect. Bryan Wagorn, at the piano, proved himself an able and versatile accompanist.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014


Johannisnacht 2014, Mainz
 A Confession, Gentle Readers: sadly, the last few weeks of the regular opera season around here coincided with successive academic conferences I was rushing about to. Thus, the last few weeks of my time in Germany, which I'd dreamed of filling with irresponsible and irrepressible opera-going, have coincided with the beginning of the Sommerpause, or summer break. Alas. Unable to do anything about this but shed a quiet tear over the Frankfurt season brochure as I consign it to the carefully-sorted trash, I am thus attempting stoicism as I pack all my worldly goods. I'm hoping to be officially moved into NYC (again!) by the beginning of August, in good time for the last hurrah of the city's festivals. I have academic work to do, aged relatives to visit, and nuptials to attend, however, so the length of my own summer break in opera-going is as yet uncertain. Although I have not yet found an apartment, I do know that the women with whom I will be sharing living quarters in the coming year also like opera and opera-going. First things first. And opera-going again soon. But for now, a brief Sommerpause between the excitements of German houses, and whatever New York has to offer.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Old forms, new festivals: Chamber Music Fest Rheinhessen

One of the things I love about this region is that there always seems to be room for another music festival. The Chamber Music Fest Rheinhessen was founded by the Flex Ensemble, a young quartet that entrepreneurially set out to create this opportunity. The weekend included masterclasses, children's concerts, and genre-crossing collaborations with other artists; Friday's opening concert, which I attended, was an evening of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century piano quartets. I never feel as though I hear enough live chamber music, and it was a treat to hear a vigorous young ensemble playing it in an assembly hall packed with music professionals and community members ranging from elderly couples to young families.

Friday, July 4, 2014

La liberté pour nous conspire? Guillaume Tell

Fighting over the future: Guillaume Tell, Act III. Photo © Bayerische Staatsoper
A confession, with apologies to those whose opera-related obsessions center on bel canto: thrillingly-sung Rossini is not a phrase that ordinarily trips from my tongue. For Wednesday night's performance of Guillaume Tell at the Bayerische Staatsoper, however, no less a word than thrilling would do. I went in with few concrete expectations, but I'd never heard Michael Volle live before, and having heard Bryan Hymel live once, I couldn't pass up the chance to do so again. So, after a morning on a train and an afternoon in the archives, I found myself directly under the ceiling of the sold-out house; following the example of fellow-students in the last row, I clambered up on the railing in front of our seats in order to see (disclaimer: my view was partial due to the angle, and occasionally interrupted due to the fact that my calf muscles could not handle constant rail-balancing.) Despite a production more impressive in concept than in execution, it was a musically and emotionally engaging evening, in which all the principal singers gave performances of remarkable passion and precision.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Lady in the Dark: Vergiss für einmal den Weltschmerz

The many selves of Liza Elliott: Lady in the Dark Act I
Photo © Staatstheater Mainz/Martina Pipprich
Matthias Fontheim, departing Intendant of Mainz's Staatstheater, has directed a production of Kurt Weill's effervescent 1941 satire, "Lady in the Dark," as an exuberant, celebratory sendoff. (If this season and what I've heard of past and future ones are anything to go by, the celebration is deserved.)  The fluid staging made admirable use of a turntable in portraying protagonist Liza Elliott's varied environments, real and imagined. The saturated color and lively stage pictures would have been aptly suited to an MGM extravaganza of the time of the piece's creation (synopsis and more here.) I very much enjoyed the evening; while the vogue for psychoanalysis dramas (cf. this and this) has dated, Weill's keen take on the pressures on women (and men) transgressing expected social and gender roles remains pointedly relevant. Mainz's production cheerfully suggests that our best hope lies in facing these problems without taking ourselves too seriously.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Interval Adventures: Firenze!

As Gianni Schicchi reminds us, Florence is a beautiful city. I was delighted to have the opportunity to revisit it, with an academic conference to attend, and time set aside for exploring. I also made time to attend a concert, on which more later. On my exploratory ventures, I discovered a curiosity: a plaster model for a monumental memorial to soprano Virginia de Blasis. (The original is in the cemetery of Santa Croce.) She died young in 1838, but enjoyed a glittering career as a bel canto soprano.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Voglio fare il gentiluomo: Mainz's Don Giovanni

Parasite or political protestor? Don G. on the margins.
Photo © Staatstheater Mainz/Martina Pipprich
In Mainz's new Don Giovanni, opera's most famous amoralist is placed in a dystopian dictatorship that seems uncomfortably familiar to today's newspaper-reading public. Liberty is more of a slogan than an ideal. The production, by Tilman Knabe is very busy, and dark in a literal as well as metaphorical sense, which influenced my sense that the events on stage might have benefited from more stylization, or more specificity. The tensions between different elements of the production sometimes struck me as counterproductive rather than fruitful. The events take place in a heavily militarized society with an unfree press and moral policing that selectively borrows religious trappings (the Commendatore has a huge pectoral cross, and appears on a balcony clad in papal white; but this is no theocracy, as Donna Anna's confidential aides are conservatively-dressed Muslim women.) No one, however, appears to have any trouble accessing machine guns. As my housemate and I discussed at the interval, it was very difficult to determine who was on whose side, or if there were sides at all; everyone is using everyone else with cheerful selfishness. Although Don Giovanni appears as the political ally of radical feminists (!!) the notion that the personal is political is one he blithely ignores, as he continues exploiting (and sometimes assaulting) women for his own gratification. This is a society where the rich have inherited the earth; Donna Elvira's conspicuous consumption shields her (partly) from the violence suffered by the other women in the piece. The indignation against Giovanni rings more than usually hollow, as Masetto routinely beats Zerlina (who is wheeled on-stage in a shopping cart); Ottavio is constantly policing Donna Anna's behavior. Donna Anna arranges the Commendatore's assassination and attempts to take his political position; making Don G. the scapegoat fulfills a double goal. But her gender dooms this endeavor: she gives Masetto the right answers to preserve her feminine virtue in his eyes, but refusing him is a crime for which she is punished through an armed coup. Don Giovanni, having barely escaped death by torture, survives… but for how long? and do we want him to? I really appreciated that Knabe's production took the inflammatory politics of the Mozart/Da Ponte masterpiece seriously; I just wished  the whole had been more coherent.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Reading List: rein GOLD

Elfriede Jelinek's 2013 Rein Gold is a text of many complexities, not the least of which is its genre. The prose work is subtitled as a “Bühnenessay,” an essay for the stage, and the audience is sometimes directly addressed as if sitting in a theater, applauding or restless or hissing. But the identity of the text as writing is also discussed. Brünnhilde is imagined as armed with a typewriter, to wield against her father’s rune-written spear. It is a meditation on the events of the Ring Cycle, on the creation of the Ring Cycle, and on its reception. It is also a meditation on the ways in which Wagner and his work have been interpreted, fetishized, and abused. The sprawling, death-marked, perhaps-renewable system of 20th- and 21st-century capitalism is also woven into the texture of the work, appearing like a reflection of the Ring’s events... or a transformed leitmotif. If I were putting it on my bookshelves, it would be at home next to the libretti or Zizek’s Living in the End Times.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Tosca: ne voglio altra mercede

Budapest's opera house, central stair
The Hungarian State Opera is a beautiful house. "I don't say it is nicer than Vienna's," said the woman who ran the pension where I stayed, "but it is at least as beautiful, and more gemütlich." A businessman from Hannover with whom I got chatting at the interval raved about it as one of Europe's loveliest and most opulent opera houses. I too appreciated the warm marbles and heavy wood in the corridors, the gold-inlaid titles of 19th-century crowd-pleasers (Norma, Aida, Robert le Diable) on the upper balcony. Unfortunately, the presentation of the opera on stage, as well as the much-touted twice-daily tours, suggested that the management views this gorgeous building more as a museum than a theater.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Miláčku, znáš mne, znáš? Rusalka in Budapest

My experience of the Budapest Festival Orchestra reads like an optimistic statistician's assessment of the effects of orchestra tours on cultural tourism. Having heard the orchestra several times in New York, I convinced my mother and sister that their plans for a long weekend in Budapest had to be combined with hearing the BFO at home. My advocacy was the more impassioned because Rusalka was on the schedule. My high expectations were not disappointed, and the acoustics of the Béla Bartók proved to be delightful, with the gently curved exterior walls allowing for warm resonance that served the orchestral sound well. I quite liked the aesthetic of the hall, too. Under the leadership of Iván Fischer, the BFO gave Dvořák's atmospheric score with rich nuance and dramatic sweep. In this concert performance, the singers also gave performances notable for emotional depth as well as vocal subtlety.

The challenges of giving Rusalka in a concert performance were met almost ideally. My reservation comes chiefly from a feeling that the singers, all off book, could have done still more if given additional space for interaction. The impassioned orchestral performance was richly evocative of Dvořák's forests and moonlight and shimmering, mysterious waters. Even the ball scene, which I can find dull, was filled with drama. Iván Fischer's impassioned and precise conducting was a joy to watch, considerable range of gesture (from a slight movement of the hands to near-dancing) bringing out corresponding range in orchestral expression. Tempi were subtly varied, and Fischer used dynamics boldly and effectively. Although there were a few brass quavers, the hunting horns were lovely, and the percussion was impressively responsive. The strings conveyed warmth and warning with equal facility, and special tribute should be paid to the ethereal woodwinds. The score's intricately woven motifs emerged poignantly; more importantly, so did its emotional directness. Friday's performance conveyed powerfully that, although Dvořák's water sprites and witches may be the stuff of fairy tales, its drama of love and jealousy, folly and hope and forgiveness, is viscerally human.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Trug des Herzens, Traum der Ahnung: Tristan und Isolde in Frankfurt

Liebesnacht: Ryan/Wilson in Act II
Photo © Oper Frankfurt/Wolfgang Runkel
It seemed appropriate to me to begin the month of May with Frankfurt's Tristan und Isolde, an opera I've loved since hearing it cold as my first live Wagner. Frankfurt's current run boasts not only an impressive pair of lovers in Lance Ryan and Jennifer Wilson, but strong performances in further roles, and a rich reading of the score from conductor Stefan Blunier. Christof Nel's atmospheric production is a darkly pessimistic one, suggesting that there can be no comfort this side of death, and even that is denied to Isolde. The man next to me dozed stertorously through much of the first act, and whispered more than once in the second two… but I was gripped and moved.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Ma la legge non ode consiglio: La Gazza Ladra in Frankfurt

La Gazza Ladra and the theater of justice
Photo © Oper Frankfurt/ Wolfgang Runkel
I confess that, in trying to summarize the plot of La Gazza Ladra (Die Diebische Elster on Frankfurt's posters,) I've often fallen back on over-simplications: "A bird steals silverware; confusion ensues; star-crossed lovers live happily ever after, eventually." But although this is not inaccurate, it is misleading. The late-nineteenth-century assessment of Rossini as a composer of cheerful, even superficial music, has clung stubbornly to this rarely-performed work, the overture to which has been used as musical shorthand for sinister insouciance. The new production by David Alden, which I saw on Saturday, is designed to strip all that away, following instead a darker vision, realized well by singers and orchestra. Rossini created a happy ending for the opera, but petty and systematic tyrannies, offhand and official acts of oppression, characterize its unfolding. The composer used a ripped-from-the-headlines plot; the unjustly accused maidservant in the original episode was, in fact, executed. Rossini wrote at a time when much of Italy was under occupation, which would have influenced how the sinister brutality (and absurdity) of officialdom in the opera was perceived.

Pippo and the Magpie
© Oper Frankfurt/Wolfgang Runkel
Alden sets his production approximately a century after the opera's 1817 premiere, using a predominantly black-to-white palette (significantly, mostly in shades of gray) and doing much with individual characterizations, as well as clever use of stagecraft. Everyone here is in danger of being crushed: the bourgeois couple, where the woman presides over her realm in brittle denial of the fact that her power is not absolute, and the man uses his wealth as a means to escape, wearing the clothes of a young and forward-thinking man, and drinking like a man with no future. There is Pippo, whose often inexplicable conduct is here motivated by the traumas he has suffered wandering a war-torn landscape, the magpie his only companion. The podestà is more acutely aware than anyone of how easily his iron rule could be toppled, how necessary his theater of power is. Then there are our young lovers, miraculous optimists: Ninetta who believes in the power of honesty to save her, who views the return of her lover and her father with nothing but joy; and Giannetto, who is as fearless in fighting for domestic justice as he is reputed to have been on the battlefield. The performance was notably well sung. This and the thoughtful, nuanced, and darkly humorous engagement with the opera's libretto, combined with--in close collaboration with--a biting, energetic reading of the score under the leadership of Henrik Nánási, helped me hear Rossini's music in new ways.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

De' fantasmi lo spavento: La Forza del Destino

The above trailer was what swayed a visiting friend towards Wiesbaden's current run of La Forza del Destino, as we looked for a piece to experience together. On Monday night, the orchestral performance was solid, led with brio by Christoph Stiller. The subtlety of the ensemble may not always have risen to Stiller's vision, but the performance was pleasingly fresh and shamelessly engaging, with brisk tempi and good pacing. At climactic moments, the singers occasionally were overpowered, but they became a part of the crashing texture of Verdian sound, rather than being drowned out.

The production by Immo Karaman set the claustrophobic and paranoid household of the Calatravas in the mid-twentieth century, where Don Carlo's status as a student is a marker of class, the sneers about Alvaro's race are painfully plausible, and Curra smokes, and observes, and sees, more clearly than anyone, the cause of liberation that can be served by Leonora's terrified attempts at rebellion. Like the production in Munich I saw earlier this year, Karaman's Forza staging is largely a dream or nightmare landscape. (Listening this time, I was struck by Leonora and Alvaro's references to having bad dreams… and what is Carlo's sick obsession with revenge if not a waking nightmare?) The bedroom in which the Marchese is shot expands dizzyingly to become a crematorium, shrinking again around the son who has to sort through worldly effects while numbed by grief, shape-shifting to become the bar/casino/brothel which has sprung up on the margins of war. Finally, it becomes again the bedroom, a space made uncanny by all that has come before. This may be yet another flashback or the "real" conclusion of the night shattered into nightmare by the shot; Curra's act of quietly closing the window, and drawing the curtains against the dawn, suggests the latter. Alvaro's defiance of order has failed spectacularly; but for the one resilient survivor, there may yet be hope.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Das Leiden unsers Herren: singing through the Triduum

I've been having an unusual Holy Week this year. The most hours I've spent in church have been spent not in services, but in singing. I have missed the liturgy of sorrow and pain and astonishing redemption, but it has been a gift to sing Purcell's Funeral Music, and Heinrich Schütz's Matthäuspassion, a piece I've gotten to know through singing it. The final chorus is full of the paradoxes of this season: "Glory to you, o Christ, for you have suffered…" And beyond the bitterness of death, eternity.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Weil alles so schlecht ist: Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny

Dancing in the storm: denial as utopia in Mahagonny
Photo © Lena Obst/Staatstheater Wiesbaden
On Thursday, I took myself to the Staatstheater Wiesbaden's current run of the Weill/Brecht Mahagonny. The house was far from full, which is a shame; the orchestra and singers gave  engaged performances in a smart, effective production by intendant Manfred Beilharz. The production supported the sly score and the quick succession of dramatic episodes. Use of space was generally good, although the apron on far side of the pit, whence newcomers to Mahagonny come and where some significant apostrophizing of the audience takes place, was invisible from most of the top balcony. Bernd Holzapfel's sets were minimalistic in the first half, allowing the broken-down car of the fugitives and, later, the green moon of Alabama to dominate the empty space where it is impossible to go forward, and the way of retreat is cut off. I liked the homage to the aesthetic of the early 30s in the art deco skyscrapers and the liner on which Jimmy seeks to leave. The glittering city of Mahagonny as it appears in the second half is dominated by a building which could be a stock exchange, a courthouse, a seat of government, or all three; its architecture is the neo-classicism favored by all expanding powers of the 20th century, and its motto is simply ¥€$. A central platform served as dining table, brothel, and boxing ring, and even as courtroom. Zsolt Hamar led the orchestra in possibly the best performance I've heard from them: lively, lascivious, insinuating, and attaining real gravitas and poignancy at crucial moments. There was dark humor in abundance, to be sure, but we were never allowed to pretend that this was not a devastatingly relevant parable, as powerful in the early 21st century as a cry of outrage and protest as it was as Cassandra-like prophecy in 1930.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Sunday Special: Purcell's Funeral Music for Queen Mary

I'm not dead, Gentle Readers! I haven't even had a nasty cold. My dissertation research has, however, seriously compromised my opera-going schedule of late. I'm hoping to get a double helping of Mozart/Da Ponte before the month is out, catching the end of Frankfurt's Così fan tutte run, and the beginning of Mainz's Don Giovanni. For the last few weeks, though, I've been getting my musical fixes from choir rehearsals (with this neat choir,) where Heinrich Schütz's Matthäuspassion and Purcell's Funeral Music are reaching the pre-concert phase of introducing and playing around with exciting nuances. This is my first time singing Purcell, and I love it a lot; when it comes to choral music, few things make me happier than English polyphony and interesting alto lines. Here is a performance by the Ensemble La Fenice:

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Nimm noch nicht Abschied: Daphne in Frankfurt

Apollo and Daphne. Photo © Oper Frankfurt/Barbara Aumüller
Last night, I got to see the first performance in this season's revival of Daphne in Frankfurt. The 2010 production by Claus Guth, who also supervised the revival, was of stunning beauty and poignancy, and a strong cast, led by the luminous Maria Bengtsson in the title role, gave moving performances. This was my first live Daphne, and one that helped me understand the opera as a coherent whole. Strauss's exquisite music is bound with an enigmatically layered libretto by Joseph Gregor, and haunted by the circumstances of its creation in 1937-38. Guth's production created an intimate narrative about Daphne's search for truth, and attempts to escape from violence, which managed (I thought) to suggest even the possibility of hope for society as well as the individual in the sublime conclusion. We see Daphne as an old woman (Corinna Schnabel) who visits the home of her youth, now in a state of abandonment and decay, and thus revisits the events of that youth (taking place around the time of the opera's creation.) The rooms of Peneios' and Gaea's household are the backdrop for the unfolding of a powerful drama which is as much allegory as myth, where Daphne attempts in solitude to avoid the violence of male society that Strauss and Gregor so frighteningly evoke. But she can get no closer to utopia than a world of paper birds and cut branches. One of the things which the production accomplishes with remarkable, redemptive success is showing that, while Apollo's and Leukippos' sexual aggression towards Daphne is reprehensible, deserving of the punishment which the god meets out to the youth and to himself, neither Apollo or Leukippos is always-already a rapist: the violence which Daphne so fears is a choice, not a disposition. This was a huge relief for me as audience member, and allows the scenes of emotional intimacy to be seen and heard as genuine, not coercive; Daphne's sense of betrayal by the god is genuine, not a belated realization of falsehood. The drama unfolds gradually, making its way despite all violence, despite all betrayal, to that transcendent finale.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Reading List: Warum Oper?

The last few weeks of my reading-on-public-transit time have been spent with "Warum Oper?" (Why Opera?) a collection of interviews with opera directors which was published in 2005. Barbara Beyer, herself an opera director, leads 14 conversations circling around this question. "Why opera?" quickly splits into "Why do you dedicate yourself to engaging with opera?" or "Why does (or should) society engage with opera?" The answers provided by those interviewed are remarkable for being both rigorously thought out and intensely personal. Working one's way through these conversations provides insights and opinions from a "who's who" of directors working primarily in German-speaking Europe: Calixto Bieito, Claus Guth, Peter Konwitschny, and Martin Kusej among them. Somewhat to my surprise, Karoline Gruber was the only woman whom Beyer interviewed. I loved reading the book, but its virtues make it difficult to summarize. Rather than working through a set list of questions, the conversations as reproduced here seem to flow from topic to topic, responding to issues raised, sometimes structured to provide contrast with (or responses to) other interviews in the book. As someone not very familiar with the history of movements and key figures in 20th-century opera direction, I enjoyed the background provided on previous generations of directors, and was surprised by the diversity of approaches and philosophies represented by those interviewed. I was also impressed by what all the directors (with the possible exception of Sebastian Baumgartner) shared: a deep passion for and trust in opera scores, and tireless willingness to challenge themselves.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Edgar: O gloria, o voluttà

Oper Frankfurt assembled a luxurious cast for two concert performances of Puccini's second opera this week. Not knowing when I'd get the chance to hear Edgar live again, I jumped at the chance to do so, especially since it also offered the opportunity to hear Angela Meade again, and Bryan Hymel for the first time. Mezzo Tanja Ariane Baumgartner joined them in making the most of the music, and making the principal characters both more plausible and more sympathetic than they are as written. What struck me first on listening to recordings of Edgar was the theatrical pacing and use of the orchestra colors. In Michele Girardi's chapter (in here)  covering the work, though, the focus was on the patent weaknesses of the libretto. According to Girardi, Fontana committed "gross linguistic and metrical sins," forcing the composer to "attempt the impossible in making up for for plot deficiencies with music." Although it's not Puccini's most bold or sophisticated music, I did find the libretto harder to ignore in performance than in recordings, and often hard to excuse. The opening scene offers a representative example: the woodwinds, growing in number, evoke waking birds, while a breeze rustles through the strings; chimes are succeeded by a clear bell… and then the chorus comes in and tells us that it is dawn, that the last star has disappeared, and that a faraway bell is ringing. (I couldn't help contrasting it mentally with the gorgeous naturalism of Bohème's Act III opening.) The plot of Edgar centers on the eponymous hero, nominally torn between the soprano who sings aubades about almond blossoms and the mezzo who was raised by traveling Moors (!) and sings about survival of the fittest and about torrid kisses. He seems more interested in Byronic introspection than in either of them, though, symbolically burning down his house when he takes up with the mezzo at the end of Act I, going off to join nationalist endeavors as an act of repentance and self-purification for taking up with the mezzo at the end of Act II, and staging his own funeral as an aesthetic and social experiment in Act III. There's a baritone who hovers around the edges of the drama, being in love with the mezzo and leading the soldiers, in both cases for reasons which are unclear. At the work's climax, the mezzo is tricked by the tenor and then excoriated by the hypocritical chorus, so she stabs the soprano in the back. In short, it's the kind of drama that begs for a concert performance (or for a really good critical production.) And Frankfurt's concert performance was of a very fine caliber indeed.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Verbrechen und Geheimnisse und Schuld: Reimann's Gespenstersonate

On the outside looking in: the student Arkenholz
Photo © Oper Frankfurt
Yesterday, I attended the last performance in Oper Frankfurt's premiere run of Die Gespenstersonate, Aribert Reimann's 1984 opera based on Strindberg's play of the same name. Walter Sutcliffe's production, making use of a stage placed diagonally between two tribunes in the Bockenheimer Depot, was sleek, with appropriate twists of the surreal and the claustrophobic. The space was used very well, I thought; although Strindberg's rivalry with Ibsen made the use of a dollhouse ironic, the image worked well in setting up a drama where voyeurism and manipulation are central. I also quite liked Kaspar Glarner's costuming, precise in its evocation of differing periods, alluding to the zombielike endurance of the bourgeoisie which Strindberg and Reimann dissect. Lear being the only one of Reimann's operas I had any previous familiarity with, I was worried that I might miss a lot in the music. But while I may have missed much that would repay further study, I found Die Gespenstersonate direct, emotionally gripping, instantly drawing the listeners into its world. Each of the figures has a distinct musical characterization, brought out vocally and in the orchestra. The small ensemble, led by Karsten Januschke, deserves high praise for a clean, richly textured performance. The strings were truly spectral, with creeping tritones not the only thing suggesting something devilish about the sinister Direktor Hummel. Low woodwinds droned menacingly; the piano and harmonium (both played by Vytis Sakuras) provided the parlor music of nightmares. Always closely bound to the text, the orchestral writing built the suspense of a drama that shows a world of jealousies and pretense, of exploitation and self-protection, a society "sick at the spring of life."

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Winterreise: Johannes Martin Kränzle & Hilko Dumno in Frankfurt

When I got off the Frankfurt subway on Tuesday night, the lady in front of me was carrying a well-used score of Der Winterreise under her arm. When I gained my seat for the evening's performance of Schubert's great song cycle, the music student next to me was frowning anxiously at the marginalia in his score, while the two elderly women behind us were happily quoting and humming snatches of the cycle to each other. For this educated and expectant audience, Johannes Martin Kränzle, ably partnered by Hilko Dumno at the piano, gave an interpretation of unusual dramatic vividness, creating emphasis in unexpected places and in unexpected ways. I was fascinated to be shown new things as Kränzle led the audience along the wanderer's snow-covered paths.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Le coeur se creuse: Werther in Frankfurt

Order vs. the artist: Werther, Act I
Photo © Oper Frankfurt/Wolfgang Runkel
Until last night, Werther belonged to the category of operas I'd never seen live, despite its being solidly established as part of the standard repertoire. I'm glad to have amended this under such favorable conditions: Frankfurt's current revival boasts not only an excellent cast, but a cool, intelligent production by Willy Decker that provides a welcome counterweight to the emotionalism of Massenet's score. Decker's visual language is straightforward and effective, dividing the nature where Werther absorbs experience and sensation from the Bailli's house by a sliding wall. The Bailli's reference to it as "his kingdom" appears as a hollow reference to a pretense of bourgeois order which he cannot uphold: the image of his dead wife has a stronger presence than any of the living in this repressed and depressive atmosphere. The emotions in the score are officially forbidden by the bourgeois society on stage: Massenet is writing in and for the time of Ibsen, not that of Goethe. The children's toy houses reappear as the village of Act II; Albert and Charlotte are separated as they are bound by the enormous dining table where they preside over all the parishioners. I particularly liked that Decker's production creates many silent, musically sensitive interactions among the characters which helped give a clear emotional through-line between the opera's episodes. Credit is due to the revival director, Alan Barnes, for making poignantly clear how each of the opera's characters is imprisoned. Even the Bailli is depressed rather than feckless; Schmitt and Johann function like Shakespearean mutes, personifying the unimaginative apathy which, as Goethe's protagonist observes, can be as dangerous as malice. It is they who bring the messages which interrupt Werther and Charlotte's attempts to break free of their prescribed social roles. Charlotte, for all the calm which Albert praises, has a lively intellectual life, and is aware, with painful intensity, of the emotional life which she is being denied. And for once we see a Werther whose Todessehnsucht is present (and credible) from the outset: he devotes himself to art and nature alike; but he is exhausted by the constant effort of maintaining his refusal to compromise.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Die Erd ist höllenheiß: Darmstadt's two Wozzecks

Getting to hear Alban Berg's Wozzeck is always a treat, and on Saturday I had the opportunity to hear it paired with Manfred Gurlitt's Wozzeck, composed almost at the same time, and, in contrast to Berg's, almost never performed. Both works use the text of Georg Büchner's "dramatic fragment"; the composers selected and ordered the scenes differently, but a great deal of the material is shared by both operas. The bicentennial of Büchner, who lived in Darmstadt, provided the impetus for the city's opera house to present the works together, with a shared director and creative team.  Berg was famously inspired by attending the belated stage premiere of Büchner's play in 1913; Gurlitt was in charge of the stage music for those Münich performances. Berg's opera had its sensational premiere at the Berliner Staatsoper in December of 1925; when Gurlitt's Wozzeck was first performed in Bremen the following April, under the composer's baton, newspaper headlines spoke of it as the "other" or the "second" Wozzeck. Although Gurlitt's opera may stand inevitably in the shadow of Berg's masterpiece, the Darmstadt presentation made a good case for it deserving better than oblivion.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Questa donna conoscete? La Traviata in Mainz

The dark side of diva worship: Mikneviciute and ensemble, Act I (Photo © Martina Pipprich)
On Tuesday, I got to see the second of four performances of La Traviata in Mainz's new production by Vera Nemirova, whose Tannhäuser I found so impressive. Both the production and performances (as well as the Programmheft) bore witness to the kind of thoughtful engagement which Verdi's opera so richly deserves and too seldom receives. In Nemirova's staging, Violetta is an opera singer. And choosing this path to deal with the themes of how she is objectified, and how both celebrity and sex are commodified by the society around her--around us--proved enormously effective. Her body is fetishized; her behavior is policed. This is especially striking in the finale of Act II, where all sing of how great her sacrifice is; of how great she is; and Violetta herself is left entirely alone while they do so. In this environment, symbols are fluid and sex is a game. Even life is treated as a game, as Flora's guests wait for the next adrenaline rush, or the next scandal. Annina, who truly loves Violetta, dreams of the impossible fiction in which the course of true love runs from romantic encounter to ecstatic reconciliation. But Violetta is more complicated than this… and Nemirova not only implies, but creates audience complicity in making assumptions about her. I, at least, had my assumptions disproved twice: the weary but resolved woman who comes on stage during the overture, to sit at the opera star's dressing table and put on her wig, is Annina; the woman who enters Flora's party on Gaston's arm, defiant and brittle in her flirtatiousness, clad as a strip dancer, is not Violetta either (she enters later, bundled in furs, equally brittle.) I felt that the opening of Act II was not as strongly staged as the rest; but the dramatic momentum of the opera was maintained well through the chilling finale. As Violetta dies, delirious and abandoned, Verdi's aching orchestral elegy was greeted with stricken silence.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Fato inesorabile: La Forza del Destino in Munich

Leonora and the force of patriarchal structures. Photo © Bayrische Staatsoper

La Forza del Destino is much more often described as containing some of Verdi's finest music than it is described as being one of his finest operas. Martin Kusej's production, which I saw last Sunday, has the great virtue of bringing a clear and coherently developed concept to an opera (in)famous for being episodic. The opera can be presented as a sprawling epic, but the musical characterization of the principals is too fine for them ever to be lost to the audience in the turmoil. Kusej keeps the focus of the production on these principals--the anguished Leonora, the rabidly principled Don Carlo, and Alvaro, who, hunted by ill-fortune, turns too easily to violence. I think the production can function on several levels, but it is primarily shaped by the perspective of Leonora, who is attempting to escape, mentally at least, from a world defined by order. She is literally as well as figuratively stifled, longing for air; but as her heart-torn aria makes clear, she cares deeply about her place in this order and about the others in it.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Ich sehe klar: Enescu's Oedipe in Frankfurt

Oedipus and the Thebans Photo © Oper Frankfurt/Monika Rittershaus
On Friday, I went to Oper Frankfurt's run of Georg Enescu's rarely performed and richly textured Oedipe (synopsis here.) Hans Neuenfels' powerful new production created suspense and ambiguity in this most famous of stories about inevitability. (The fourth act, in which Enescu finds redemption for Sophocles' tragic protagonist, is omitted here.) The space in which the drama takes place is enclosed with layers of equation-covered blackboards which Oedipus tries to read like hieroglyphs. We see Oedipus first thus: as a grown man, an academic deciphering mysteries of systems and probabilities, an observer of the scene in Laios' palace. The cradle is an egg--symbol of life--which remains mysterious and unnamed. But the apparent order praised by the uniformly clad chorus is disrupted by prophecy, and Oedipus resolves to act: to enter the story, rather than observing it; a parallel impulse for the researcher as for the warrior who desires freedom from his fate. But this quest for autonomy is impeded not least by social impulses towards categorization: Shepherd, Priest, King. Costumes from different periods of history (notably in Jocasta's gowns) allude to this dangerous tendency. Even the Erinnye- like rockers who appear to resist control abet the bullying cruelty of Laios. One of the production's most chilling moments is when, as the plagued Thebans beg their king for aid, for an answer to their questions, for an end to their pain, Oedipus finds himself back in a lecture hall, equations crowding the walls, the Thebans crowded onto benches, and he himself powerless in a white coat by the gleaming metal gurney which is only temporarily without the burden of a corpse. But the production does not insist that freedom is illusory; the highly charged interactions between Oedipus and Merope raise the question of whether Tiresias' prophecy functions with the power of suggestion, or indeed is based on insight into character. Is it Oedipus' obsession with fate that drives him, rather than the fate itself? The opera's central question--how free are we?--hangs painfully suspended.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

New year, New York, new opera

Silvester fireworks in Mainz
I have an operatically eventful January ahead of me here in Germany: Enescu in Frankfurt, Verdi in München, hopefully a Wozzeck double-bill in Darmstadt, and if I can manage it, Elektra in Dresden. I am, believe it or not, planning to get some work done as well. But while all this excitement is keeping me busy over here, my beloved New York will also be having a very exciting month of opera. A recent bounty of press releases contained news too good not to share with you all, including new and new-to-NYC opera galore.


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