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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