Thursday, 19 January 2017

Staatsoper Hamburg: Otello

17 January 2017

It’s not been a great couple of weeks for Calixto Bieito after the Met in New York pulled the plug on his Forza del Destino. His Otello has, however, made its transfer the stage of the Staatsoper in Hamburg in one piece, having been unveiled in in Basel in late 2014. I’m afraid this seemed to be a similar sort of affair to his Forza, though, with a handful of Bieitoisms somewhat half-heartedly applied to Verdi’s final tragic masterpiece.

Calixto Bieito's Otello at Staatsoper Hamburg (Photo © Hans Jörg Michel)
The main prop—a vast harbour-side crane—will arguably have had greater resonance for the Hamburg audience than for that in landlocked Basel, but otherwise neither it nor the rest of Bieito’s ideas seemed terribly well tailored to Otello (although, I should note, it was all strikingly lit by Michael Bauer). 

The chorus became a kind of semi-imprisoned mob, often stumbling to the front of the stage, in dirty tracksuits and amplified by a few semi-naked extras, to stare us down. Otello was a sort of gangster boss, I think, Iago one of his deputies and Desdemona his moll, understandably miffed at having to appear repeatedly at the dockside in a series of her fanciest outfits.  

Click to enlarge
Otello’s otherness and nobility were nowhere to be seen, so key threads of the drama—the shocking dissonance between his military prowess and his social insecurity, the sources of Iago’s envy—were missing. Desdemona’s whiter-than-white innocence, a pre-requisite for the tragedy, was never even hinted at, while the director’s now standard recourse to misogynistic violence—though still often theatrically powerful—left a slightly bitter taste. 

And the horror of Desdemona’s treatment at the hands of her husband is already so powerfully portrayed in the work that it’s very difficult for a director to try and underline it without actually undercutting it.

In the first three acts, then, this Otello felt like a bit of a hodge podge, markedly short of the conviction that was always such a Bieito trademark, regardless of what else one thought of his decisions (it was unclear whether he’d on hand to supervise rehearsals). 

Yet, as the drama itself achieves its most searing focus, Act IV was a great deal better. Svetlana Aksenova, a little frayed and unyielding in the earlier acts, came into her own in Desdemona’s Willow Song and Ave Maria, delivered with real intensity from a platform half way up the crane: first she threatened to jump off, and then, broken, sank down in desperation.

Nadezhda Karyazina (Emilia, left) and Svetlana Aksenova (Desdemona) (Photo © Hans Jörg Michel)

Bieito also had one final trick up his sleeve, as Otello climbed the structure and was then swung out over the orchestra for his final moments. This was a coup, but a pay-off arguably not worth the price of having the whole rest of the drama play out in the thing’s shadow (there was an audible tut when the curtain rose after the interval to reveal nothing had changed on stage; ‘gute Abwechslung,’ someone behind me muttered sarcastically). 

Here, in his final moments, though, was where Marco Berti’s Otello was at his best, his acting honest and heartfelt (an unfortunately unconvincing ‘Urgh!’ as he expired notwithstanding). Before that, his performance was frustrating: loud, unlovely and lumpily phrased. It’s a terrific voice in many ways, trumpety and ringing, just a shame this performance remained musically and dramatically so rudimentary.

Claudio Sgura (Iago) and Marco Berti (Otello) (Photo © Hans Jörg Michel)

There was something a great deal more sophisticated from Claudio Sgura’s liquid-toned and sly Iago, even if the baritone didn’t quite command the stage as the production clearly wanted him to—and he was, perhaps unsurprisingly, out-belted by the force-12 Berti in ‘Si, pel ciel’. 

Markus Nykänen made a strong impression as Cassio, but the chorus occasionally sounded underpowered, and Paolo Carignani’s conducting was often disappointingly lukewarm—not a great deal of fuoco di anything coming from the pit. And ultimately there was far too little fire in the belly of Bieito’s production too: he pulled it back somewhat for the finale, but too much of the rest just felt rehashed and reheated.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Deutsche Oper Berlin: Salome

22 November 2016, Deutsche Oper Berlin

I was left somewhat baffled by Michael Schultz’s new Salome in Dresden last month, which took into a young girl’s nursery for the opening scenes—with Narraboth memorably starting off as an oversized teddy bear—and gave us six burlesque artists choreographed by Koko La Douce rather than seven veils. (My review is forthcoming in Opera.)

Salome at the Deutsche Oper (Photo © Monika Rittershaus)
Claus Guth’s nearly-new staging at the Deutsche Oper—it opened in January—offers interpretative challenges of a different sort. Again, it seems to be very much taking place in the young princess’s mind, at least before the entrance of her parents and during her final scene. It’s a place filled with suited men, or reanimated mannequins (and a couple of actual child mannequins) and young doubles, the latter coming into play especially in the dance, which turns into a re-enactment of various stages of Salome’s troubled relationship with her step-father.

Although I think it at that stage it might even have been Jochanaan dressed up as Herod: another feature of the production was some confusing cross-dressing—between characters rather than genders. In the first scene we got little help, given the heterogeneous costuming and shady lighting, in telling who was singing when. Guth is such a skilled director that this can only have been a deliberate strategy, a desire to blur lines of identity and reality, to leave us unsettled.

The costuming also played into the main set, revealed as Herod and Herodias made their entrance: a vast tailor’s shop in Guth’s characteristic veneer-clad mid-century style (costumes and sets were by Muriel Gerstner), with suits arrayed by the dozen and ‘Massanfertigungen’ emblazoned across the back wall in stylish font. The revivified shop mannequins become shop assistants. There’s a great deal of the fussing and rushing about that one gets in this sort of place.

Jochanaan’s role in all this is a little unclear. He appears first, thrusting an arm and then a leg out of a pile of clothing, in just his underpants. He is then dressed by the young Salome doubles—presumably projections of her own will. Now, clad in suit, shirt and tie, he is a full member of this strange society. As such he also, of course, begins more and more to resemble Herod.

For his final reappearance he turns up as an actual mannequin, from which Salome herself tears the head. Everything she does to it—nothing remotely erotic, it should be noted—seems then, as if this mannequin is some sort of voodoo doll, to affect Herod (as with much here, it’s difficult to be sure). The final minutes have nothing of gory triumph about them, ending with anti-climactic, disturbing emptiness

Amidst all the dreamlike illusion, all these projections (in the psychological sense), all the deliberate confusion and elision, one is left with a feeling of deep discomfort and uncertainty. There’s no final clarification as there is with Guth’s Frau ohne Schatten, coming to the Staatsoper here in the spring: we are left to draw our own conclusions. Whether or not you think that constitutes a cop-out on the director’s part, will be up to each individual viewer.

This was the 10th appearance of the production and musically things were pretty much as one would expect several months down the line. There were a few rough edges in the orchestral playing, and some slightly boisterous brass, but Jeffrey Tate held it all together skilfully, and paced the evening well. Manuela Uhl’s voice sits high and projects well as Salome, although the slight acidity to the colour is not always welcome. John Lundgren was a stentorian Jochanaan. Burkhard Ulrich and Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet were outstanding as the royal couple – he pernickety and fussy, she striking a fine balance between imperious and grotesque.

Monday, 14 November 2016

Komische Oper Berlin: Yevgeny Onegin

12 November 2016, Komische Oper Berlin

The very best opera productions often make everything look so simple. They make you wonder why so many stagings get things so wrong, why they throw far too much at dramas that don’t need it, for which less so often means more. Barry Kosky’s Komische Oper Yevgeny Onegin is one such production, where nothing feels superfluous, where everything is there for a reason.

Günter Papendell as Onegin (Photo © Iko Freese/

Above all, as with Andreas Homoki’s Meistersinger in the same theatre, it creates its own poetic universe, in which literal-minded criticisms of what might be perceived as missing—and with virtually no dancing and no change in set for the whole of the first two acts, on paper that amounted to a fair bit—are rendered obsolete before they can start even to be formulated.

Here Kosky’s poetic universe was one rooted in nature as a site of innocence and carefree happiness, but also of solitude and nostalgic longing, where the action takes place with an imaginative dreamlike fluency. Rebecca Ringst’s set, lit with ever-shifting perspectives by Franck Evin, is a realistic meadow with a central revolve and trees upstage, into which and from which characters and chorus can easily and almost imperceptibly disappear and materialise.

Only in the final act did we get an additional set, in the form of a St Petersburg salon plonked onto the meadow. In a wonderful final touch, though, this was dismantled before our eyes to return Onegin and Tatyana to the place of their first meeting: a landscape of the memory, onto which the rain now poured down. Here and elsewhere the production achieved powerful effects by sharply drawing the focus onto individual characters, making us feel and understand their own subjective point of view and feelings.

In Gremin’s aria, we stepped out of the moment as Tatyana walked in a trance over to a desperate Onegin to embody his obsession. In the Letter Scene she was simply in a spotlight downstage, but directed with such clarity and purpose that we were transported right into her emotional turmoil. In another clever touch, the tragic folly of the duel was underlined by both Onegin and Lensky being portrayed as drunk beforehand, each swigging from a bottle in sad desperation.

Of course none of this would have worked anywhere near so well without a fine cast, and as Tatyana the company’s recent Rusalka Nadja Mchantaf again showed what a compelling actress she is: she carried the Letter Scene as much through her dramatic commitment as her singing, while her transformation between the first two and last acts from openhearted innocent to self-possessed pragmatist was brilliantly conveyed. Günther Papendell was no less expert in showing Onegin’s trajectory—not the exact reverse, perhaps, but not far off it—in a compelling performance.

I really enjoyed Aleš Briscein’s bright-toned, Slavic-tinged Lensky, and Önay Köse’s youthful, light but moving Gremin. There were a few rough edges from the orchestra under Henrik Nanasi, but the conductor conducted a fluent and fleet account of the score. But It’s the clarity and poetry of Kosky’s production that made this Onegin so haunting and moving.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Deutsche Oper Berlin: Tosca

8 November 2016 at the Deutsche Oper Berlin

It’s not often these days you get a round of applause greet a singer appearing on the stage, the sort of thing that you can hear on many a live Callas or Tebaldi recording. Yet that’s what happened when Anja Harteros swept in here. It was just a smattering, though, and, as far as one can gauge the tenor of these things, sounded a little sarcastic to me.

Someone also shouted something, which I couldn’t make out. I’d been let down the last time I was due to here Harteros in Berlin too, as the Marschallin in the Deutsche Oper’s Straussfest earlier in the year, and had been nervously checking the website up to a couple of hours before the performance started.

But there she was, and the quality of her performance only underlined why there is a frustration—opera-goers in London have long given up of ever seeing her there again—that she tends to cancel, for whatever reason. 

Her performances in other roles might not suggest that she’s temperamentally a natural Tosca, but to think that is to underestimate the quality of her artistry. She’s no scenery-chewer and everything’s always in control, and arguably this was an ‘old-fashioned’ performance was a good fit for the grandeur of what must one of the Deutsche Oper’s oldest productions, dating from 1969.

But that didn’t stop her presenting what was probably the most complete performance of the role I’ve seen, or heard. Her guttural command to Scarpia to die at the end of Act 2 was chilling, while her transition from conspiratorial whisper to shock at Cavaradossi’s not-so-fake execution—a moment that so often just doesn’t quite work—was perfectly managed. The voice was in great condition, too, powerful and free at the top.

It’s rare to hear the role sung with such style and finesse: key passages such as the conclusion of a soaring, long-breathed ‘Vissi d’arte’, or the character’s final lines in Act 1—‘Dio mio perdona. Egli vede ch’io piango!’—were exquisitely turned. But such things are not just niceties for canary-fanciers: Harteros makes such musical quality translate into nobility and grandeur of character, making one not only believe in the character but also care about her. I felt lucky to be there, and to have added another Harteros role to my mental cabinet of cherished operatic memories.

It obviously wasn’t just about her, though, and she had an impressive Cavaradossi in the Tenerife-born Jorge de León, a handsome chap with a big, bright voice that would fill any house, and who sings with some style. It’s not the most seductive sound, perhaps, with a narrow bore and a hint of nasality, but it’s often a thrilling one, and he sails through the role with real confidence. Lucio Gallo jumped in late in the day for the one cancellation we did have—Falk Struckmann pulling out as Scarpia. Ivan Repušić conducted a generous, bold account of the score. The orchestra played their hearts out and I don’t think I’ve seen a more lively and mischievous children’s choir than here with the Deutsche Oper’s kids.

A few words more about Boleslaw Barlog’s production, with designs by Filippo Sanujust, and which was spruced up by Götz Friederich in its 1987 Wiederaufnahme. It hardly looks any older than Jonathan Kent’s 2006 Royal Opera staging, to pick just one more recent ‘traditional’ staging, and still does service very well. My only gripe is the caricatured Spoletto—rather too much Beckmesser and evil Mr Bean in there—and the rest of Scarpia’s entourage, who look as if they might have escaped from a production of Oliver!. Nevermind, though: this was a very good night at the Deutsche Oper.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Book Review: The Ring of Truth by Roger Scruton

The Ring of Truth: The Wisdom of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung
By Roger Scruton. Allen Lane. 416pp. £25. ISBN: 978-0241188552

[From Opera, November 2016, pp. 1484-6]

Over a decade after tackling Tristan und Isolde in his first book devoted to Wagner, Roger Scruton has turned his attention to The Ring. The result is characteristically heartfelt and uncompromising—combative, even—and suffused throughout with a feeling of ideas mulled over and developed over decades. Whether or not it represents the ‘truth’ or merely has the ‘ring of truth’ (it’s unclear whether the author is aware of his title’s ambiguity) will vary according to each reader, but there’s certainly no shortage of wisdom.

There’s also something undeniably appealing and refreshing about Scruton’s robust and unapologetic belief in the work and its composer, in its irresistible power, its status as ‘one of the greatest works of art produced in modern times’, to quote the very first sentence of his introduction. Certain key favourite passages crop up again and again, and you can almost imagine him closing his eyes and slipping back into his armchair to savour them.

Yet I suspect that the armchair, rather than a seat in the theatre, is exactly where Scruton does tend to experience The Ring. Throughout the book he (rightly) berates writers who interpret the work through the words alone; close readings of the music of the cycle plays a central role in many of his chapters. What is notable is the almost total absence of discussion of The Ring as theatre, as drama enacted by singers on a stage.

This he seems quietly to justify by calling upon Wagner’s authority: ‘it is by implanting the principle of musical development in the heart of the drama that Wagner is able to lift the action out of the events portrayed on the stage, and to endow it with a universal, cosmic and religious significance’, he writes early on, adding that: ‘Reflecting on his art in his later years Wagner insisted on this aspect, suggesting that what passes on the stage is nothing but “an act of music made visible”.’ Scruton is not the first subtly to misrepresent Wagner on this point; the composer is actually saying, in something hardly amounting to an aesthetic manifesto, that he sometimes might have felt like describing drama as such.

Scruton’s concern often seems to be to save The Ring from interpretation. He is immediately and loftily dismissive of Bayreuth’s centenary production, ‘when Pierre Boulez sanitized the music, and Patrice Chéreau satirized the text’, seeing it as the source of many a subsequent misdemeanour. ‘Since that groundbreaking venture,’ he goes on, ‘The Ring has been regarded as an opportunity to deconstruct not only Wagner but the whole conception of the human condition that glows so warmly in his music.’ At the end of the same paragraph, he describes writing his book in part so as ‘to enter a plea on behalf of a work that is more travestied than any other in the operatic repertoire’. At no point, however, does he suggest how it should be staged today: are we left to assume he believes Wagner’s scenic requirements as they exist in his librettos are genuinely realizable, or is he simply unconcerned about such practicalities?

This stance also colours his limited engagement with what others have written on The Ring. He dresses up his conservative attitude to the work in theoretical clothes when he argues for its status as symbolic rather than allegorical: individual elements of it have symbolic significance, he writes, but the work’s essential meaning is fixed. Allegorical interpretations from those writing on The Ring are unnaturally imposed, then, and doomed to failure, as are, one is left to infer, any similar directorial interpretations. The sense throughout is that The Ring for Scruton exists in a state of grace, a state of perfection, despite its long gestation, the Tristan-and-Meistersinger-shaped caesura in its creation and the changes in Wagner himself in the quarter-century he took to write it. Scruton’s aim is to explain that, rather than explore any of the fissures other have detected and found fascinating.

This he does impressively, no doubt, although his arguments are not aided by the book’s structure. We start with a fascinating, if heavy-going, 40-page chapter on the intellectual, philosophical background against which Wagner composed his tetralogy, a tour de force in many ways, even if Scruton is not the first not to explain—or acknowledge any contradiction in—why all this would seep into Wagner’s work while his anti-Semitism wouldn’t. Chapter 3, ‘The Story’, is a synopsis, peppered with telling insights and sides, but which nevertheless feels dogged, long and largely superfluous—this is very much a book for Wagner initiates, I feel—at some 90 pages in length. The remaining five chapters would seem to be clearly delineated given their titles: ‘How the music works’, ‘Understanding the Story’, ‘Character and Symbol’, ‘Love and Power’, ‘Siegfried and Other Problems’. There’s a wealth of wisdom and insight to be found in them. Each, however, feels a little unwieldy, the boundaries between them rather too porous, precisely when the reader could do with a little more structure and guidance.

I was concerned, too, by the general lack of engagement with vast swathes of the literature. Reference to Dahlhaus might have helped join the dots between discussions of the way leitmotifs function and the prevalence of narrative throughout the cycle, for example. Additionally, reference to John Deathridge’s chapter on Don Carlos, Götterdämmerung and Walter Benjamin’s Trauerspiel in his Wagner Beyond Good and Evil might well have added something to the discussion of The Ring in terms of allegory and symbol. This selective reading also makes for some Parsifal-like realignment of time: for Scruton ‘recent’ scholarship can mean the early ’80s; elsewhere we read that Hans von Wolzogen’s description of one particular leitmotif ‘has been exploded by Deryck Cooke’, as if this were the latest scholarly development.

Such things might bother those of a more academic persuasion, as will the scant scholarly apparatus: no bibliography, a slightly unsystematic attitude towards the end notes. Others, however, will simply lose themselves in Scruton’s ideas: always forthright and heartfelt, and particularly poignant on the very impossibility of reconciling human idealism with political reality, which, as I read it, he sees as being one of the central themes of Wagner’s cycle. Ultimately, while this book might provoke agreement and disagreement in equal measure, it is undeniably stimulating, and forces the reader to engage with and wonder at The Ring anew. That can only be a good thing.

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Staatsoper Berlin: Elektra

With this performance, the Staatsoper became the fourth of the six co-producing houses to stage the late Patrice Chéreau’s Elektra, first seen in Aix-en-Provence in 2013. It also restored Evelyn Herlitzius to centre stage after Nina Stemme had taken over the title role for the staging’s New York run.

Herlitzius’s performance remains astonishing, both vocally and dramatically. She stalks the stage with a feral energy that is unleashed in sharp, unpredictable movements; despite the downtrodden, subjugated nature of her existence, you’re never in doubt about the wild-eyed, overpowering determination to exact revenge. 

[Read the full review at Bachtrack]

Monday, 24 October 2016

Deutsche Oper Berlin: Rigoletto

Rigoletto at the Deutsche Oper (Photo © Bettina Stöß)
I’ve seen a few strange Rigolettos in my time, including one where the drama was, for no reason I could detect, set in the Wild West. Jan Bosse’s 2013 Deutsche Oper staging sets it in the Deutsche Oper itself, and I even – in a slightly befuddled state – found myself getting confused as I walked into the auditorium to my seat and saw an audience sitting where I used to seeing the stage.

A few rows of chairs, framed in the same wood finish as the auditorium, were filled with a restless ‘audience’ chatting. A disco ball – a portent of the dubious taste to come – dangled ominously overhead. 

Before the Prelude, the floor of the pit was raised up to bring the orchestra into view (it sank back down after the first scene). 

During the prelude, a glittery bunny-rabbit appeared, later revealed as Rigoletto himself, who underneath was dressed in a onesie with joker-like motifs in glittery gold. Monterone stepped out of the audience (the real one) with a daughter in tow; the Duke – dressed, with his entourage, in an array of ghastly suits and shirts – came in through the auditorium.

Rigoletto at the Deutsche Oper (Photo © Bettina Stöß)
For Rigoletto’s house, a few rows of chairs rose up to reveal a warren-like dwelling beneath, around which Gilda was forced to clamber awkwardly – why that scene should make concessions to being set in something like a the designated physical environment while the others weren’t wasn’t clear.

I suppose the whole production’s aim was largely to point the spotlight back on us, to finger us as complicit in the sort of society that’s being depicted on stage – that’s what these sorts of productions are usually about. And that’s fine. But the knock-on effect, inevitably, is that if it’s about us, then it’s rarely also about them, the characters.

Ripping the drama out of its own environment and placing it in a meta-theatrical world, you deny Rigoletto, Gilda & Co their raisons d’être. It’s an obvious consequence, but surely was instrumental in making it difficult to be drawn into, say, Rigoletto’s great ‘Cortigiani’ scene here, despite the best efforts of Markus Brück in the role – a Deutsche Oper stalwart who brings a real intensity to the music, even if his smooth baritone frays a little at the top and can’t quite spin the legato line you ideally want in the role.

Only at the end, when the stage was emptied after what, admittedly, was an effective staging of the storm (with the ‘woo-woo-woo-ing’ chorus a threatening hoodied mob), were we allowed to concentrate on Gilda and Rigoletto as characters. Their final duet was moving, with Siobhan Stagg’s Gilda really opening up vocally as well as emotionally.

There were some fine other performances, too: from Yosep Kang, phrasing elegantly and displaying exactly the right weight of voice for the Duke; and from Ievgen Orlov as an implacable Sparafucile. In the smaller roles, Judit Kutasi stood out for some properly fruity contralto notes as Maddalena (and, to a lesser extent, Giovanna), while Thomas Lehman also made a strong impression as Marullo. Diego Matheuz’s conducting was very decent, a few routine moments notwithstanding.

The production itself is one to tick off, though, rather than rush to revisit.