Friday, 19 December 2014

Un ballo in maschera and Tristan und Isolde at the ROH

Ever since the announcement was made that the Royal Opera House would entrust a new production of Un ballo in maschera to Katharina Thoma, whose 2013 Ariadne auf Naxos at Glyndebourne had been widely disliked, there had been a certain amount of speculation as to, first, what she'd done to deserve a new Covent Garden production and, second, what she'd make of Verdi's tricky middle-period work. Would we get another dubious concept? Would the cast--a big-voiced bunch, but hardly the most willing or adventurous thesps--be happy to play along with what she'd come up with? More generally: should a theatre like Covent Garden should be entering into a morganatic marriage with an outfit like Theater Dortmund (and I don't mean any offence to Dortmunders there), where the production was unveiled in September?

In fact, it's interesting to read in Der Westen's review of the Dortmund premiere how the fact that it was co-produced with a major house was held responsible for it being, according to the reviewer, 'backward and ridiculous'. 'Because Covent Garden is a star-theatre and a fossilized/frozen theatre as well ["Star-Theater und starres Theater dazu"]. If you want to have the Netrebkos and Garancas, the Grigolos and Callejas as nearly daily visitors, to fill the house with tourists, you're not going to take risks.' (You can read the piece -- auf Deutsch -- here.)

Un ballo in maschera at Covent Garden with (centre, left to right) Serena Gamberoni (Oscar),
Joseph Calleja (Riccardo) and Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Renato) (Photo © Catherine Ashmore)

It's an unfair view, perhaps, and it's difficult to know to what extent Thoma was indeed trying to pander to what she perceived to be the requirements of Covent Garden. What she delivered achieved perhaps one notable thing -- it wasn't booed at the curtain call as a string of the Royal Opera's new productions have been. That, in itself, is perhaps no great achievement, however, and reflects, if anything, the production's convictionless conservatism. (I've maintained before that the Covent Garden booers have in the past reacted to quality rather than simply booing anything 'modern', but this seemed to prove that I have, after all, being giving them too much credit.)

But what we saw had no place on the Royal Opera's stage: a fusty, half-hearted compromise conceptually speaking, marred by stagecraft more inept, I think, than anything I've seen on the Royal Opera Stage--certainly for a long time. As with her Glyndebourne Ariadne, Thoma chose to update the action to the eve of war, in this instance positioning Riccardo as, I think, a Habsburg on the eve of WWI, the conspirators as Balkan troublemakers. As at Glyndebourne, however, the updating had little to do with the opera in question, and seemed, once more, like a somewhat crass attempt to syphon some gravitas off from an historical moment (of the most monumental significance) to bestow profundity on her own concept (which is of rather lesser significance). The final gesture of giving Oscar an army coat and tin helmet, presumably ready for him to be shipped off to the trenches, struck me, in this regard, as in very poor taste.

Other ideas came an went, with the set (by Soutra Gilmour) -- the main feature was pair of wobbly chunks of scenery on castors, which contained the action in between them while offering rooms for additional unnecessary details on their outer sides -- moved and removed into various configurations. One feature was human statues (we were metres from Covent Garden piazza, after all) in the sort-of graveyard of the 'Orrido campo'; this tendency to memorialization (a fetish of the Habsburgs, of course) was emphasized by Ricccardo being manhandled onto a large marble-ish plinth (wobbly once more) for his death.

Liudmyla Monastyrska as Amelia (Photo © Catherine Ashmore)
There were dodgy dancing (choreographed by Lucy Burge), dodgy costumes (designed by Irina Bartels), and plenty of superfluous bits and bobs. During Riccardo's 'Forse la soglia attinse' there was some fussy business with him imagining a confrontation with the human statues; a little boy, the son of Renato and Amelia, made several distracting appearances. The whole thing was so poorly thought through, though, that a central gauze had to go up and down in the middle of scenes and lackeys were required to stroll on and off to remove bits of furniture and push the set around. Worst of all, it all looked several decades old: it felt like the umpteenth revival of a dusty production that a company has been itching to ditch for years.

This impression was reinforced by conducting from Daniel Oren that was crude and insensitive and which--as when chorus and orchestra parted company for several bars in the final act--sometimes flirted with something closer to basic incompetence. Big moments passed for nothing, much was rushed and messy--there was little sense that the conductor liked the music at all. This seeped through into the playing, much of which was depressingly brash and unrefined.

In this context, the big-name cast seemed like it was left to fend for itself. Joseph Calleja's unusual tenor always walks a line between strange bleatiness and glorious freedom and expressiveness, but seemed here more firmly rooted in the former category, the very top, in particular, showing a rasping quality I'd noticed when he sang Faust earlier in the year, but which I'd hoped was down to temporary indisposition (I hope those 'Nessun dormas' haven't taken their toll on this essentially lyrical instrument). His phrasing was lumpy and foursquare, he often rushed, and, without much direction, his acting was exposed as almost comically rudimentary.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky did his usual thing, but the loss of sap in the middle of his voice is more noticeable now, even if the top remains generous and burnished. There was plenty of quality in Liudmyla Monarstyrska's Amelia, the quiet singing in particular, but her top is rawer than it once was, and there wasn't much acting from her either. Marianne Cornetti chewed the scenery enthusiastically as Ulrica, but her vocalism was pretty rough and ready. Arguably the most charming performance was that of Serena Gamberoni as Oscar, sparky and engaging and sung in a voice with ping and also some appealing lyrical beauty. There was some good work in the supporting roles, but this was an unequivocally grim evening at the Royal Opera.

Certainly it was difficult to believe that this was being presented by the same company that had performed Christof Loy's Tristan the evening before (I'd been away so was only able to catch up with it then). I'll be brief, but I should admit I was left unmoved by the performance -- perhaps something to do with my seat, at the front of the amphitheatre round to the right, perpendicular with the wall stage-right, which seemed to amplify the singers' voices rather unpleasantly -- but at least there was quality and conviction in spades.

But I'm still unconvinced by Pappano's conducting of this piece, which remains, I feel, more physical than metaphysical, and am never going to like Loy's production, even if I think I admire parts of it more now than I did first time round. The singing of the leading couple is astonishing, though: Nina Stemme's Isolde, although the voice (from my seat at least) is losing some of its allure, is imperious; Stephen Gould's Tristan is tireless and musical. I particularly enjoyed Iain Paterson's Kurwenal, too, but--as others have noted--Sarah Connolly's big moment (Brangäne's watch) was somewhat undermined by her positioning on stage. Plenty of quality in the rest of the cast, too. I'll hold my tongue regarding John Tomlinson's King Marke.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Falstaff and Turandot at the Deutsche Oper

I'm currently on a quick research trip in Berlin, during which time I've taken the opportunity to pay a first visit -- or, rather, two -- to the Deutsche Oper. The repertoire I sampled was central; the productions were more left-field. With the Falstaff it was good to be reminded that Christof Loy can do comedy; there won't be much of that when I catch up next week with his Royal Opera Tristan. (He's a director whose work I have generally not greatly enjoyed: after a first encounter with the Royal Opera Ariadne, I really didn't like the Tristan first time round, missed the Lulu, but really took against his cop-out 2011 Salzburg Frau, which, along with his po-faced and drearily ernst Barcelona Entführung, I have seen only on DVD.)

Christof Loy's 'Falstaff' at the Deutsche Oper (Photo © Hans Jörg Michel)

Anyway, his Falstaff, new last November, makes a fascinating comparison to Damiano Michielletto's production from the 2013 Salzburg Festival. Both take the same starting point, with a reference to the Casa di Riposo in Milan that Verdi set up for retired singers and musicians. Michielletto's production deals unimaginatively with this idea, letting it -- and a fixed single set -- constrain the drama. (There's a disapproving review from me in a forthcoming Gramophone -- I can't say I thought much of it), Loy lets the action run riot on an open stage. Bits of minimal scenery come and go, the exception being a large, grand wall that appears (then is whisked up) at the start of Act 3, separating a disconsolate Falstaff, left nursing his wounds in a suitcase-strewn wasteland at the very front of the stage, from the rest of the 'cast', dressed up and clinking glasses in the bright, clean space on the other side.

Production details
I put 'cast' in inverted commas, because it's a production that constantly suggests multiple levels of performance. It also seems to pick away at its own central concept, questioning and even undercutting it. The evening starts with from a witty film (accompanied by Victor Maurel's 1907 recording of 'Quand'ero paggio') in grainy black and white, which dissolves leaving Kiril Manolov's lank-haired Falstaff singing the same arietta at the piano before the opera proper kicks off.  The singers are at first dressed up to look like Casa di Riposo residents, then remove wigs and fusty outfits to show their more youthful selves beneath. The action is presented as part performed, part lived, the line between the two entirely porous. During the final ensemble, everyone -- chorus included -- finds wigs, slacks and cardis in the suitcases that have been lying about. By the final curtain, as a Verdi portrait is brought on (much as it had been, if memory serves, in Michielletto's staging), everyone's back to being 'old' again.

I'd admit I'm not entirely sure what Loy's point is, and it was inevitable that, in the context, the magic of Herne's Oak was somewhat lost, but I'd much rather this looser approach to a concept that Michielletto's straitjacketed one: the fluidity, the unpredictability and, even, the slightly chaotic bafflingness of it all appealed to me. Here's a trailer to give an idea:

It helped, of course, to have a good musical performance. Stefan Solyom conducted a straightforward account of the score -- slightly tentative tempos in the zippier ensembles was perhaps due to a lack of rehearsal time in the house's busy repertoire system. As London heard in Salome at this year's Proms, the orchestra is a very classy band, producing a rich sound but capable of necessary agility and lightness of touch.

There was a fine cast, with Manolov (a name new to me) combining a big, leonine baritone and larger-than-life, bear-like physical presence -- only a hint of old-world charm was lacking. Elena Tsallagova was a charming, slightly geeky Nannetta, well matched by Alvaro Zambrano's Fenton. Maria Pia Piscitella's rich soprano made her a fine Alice, and Dana Beth Miller was an impressively fruity Mrs Quickly. John Chest's Ford was well focused, if a probably a size or two too small, and Marko Mimica's resonant, powerfully-sung Pistola stood out among some fine performances from the rest of the cast (click the thumbnail right for a full list).

Turandot at the Deutsche Oper (photo © Bettina Stöß)
Another name new to me was that of Lorenzo Fioroni, a protégé of Ruth Berghaus and Götz Friedrich, who provided the production of Turandot, dating originally from 2008. His view is a brutal and cruel one, in which much of the action seems choreographed by the aged, almost benign Altoum (Peter Maus, dressed in the grey suit favoured by some dictators). He appears, along with a handful of other doddery dignitaries to watch from a rectangular viewing gallery set into a wall. In front, the oppressed, cowering 'Popolo di Pekino' sing his praises -- at one powerful moment, one woman stood defiantly looking the opposite way, only to be beaten into submission as the paean recommenced.

Turandot becomes a slightly petulant princess, her riddling with Calaf played out down stage as a face-off (shades of Minnie vs Rance, without the poker) over a small table. Once she finally succumbs to love, she murders her father; Calaf, in turn, dispatches poor old Timur. It's all pretty heartless in the final act, where the scope for mischievous humour seems to be exhausted -- much of it stemming from Ping, Pang and Pong, here (in a touch coincidentally reminiscent of Loy's Falstaff) repeatedly dressing up to play their roles in the 'entertainment'. Again, I'm not sure it amounted to anything terribly coherent, but it certainly had its compelling moments.

Musically speaking, the greatest pleasure probably came from the magnificent Deutsche Oper chorus, and there singing was matched by fine playing once more from the orchestra -- even if Ivan Repušić's conducting was pretty broad-brush and four-square. Kamen Chanev was a stentorian Calaf, the voice impressively ringing and trumpety, although lacking in much Italianate honey; a certain unflinching machismo in his stage manner was not unsuited to Fioroni's conception.

Catherine Foster, Bayreuth's current Brünnhilde and a British singer who's carved out an impressive career in Germany, had quite a lot of dodgy moments intonation-wise as Turandot, and the voice seems to take some time to warm up -- both during the course of an evening and, strangely enough, during the course of some notes. In full flight, though, it's an impressive sound, and the lack of steely edge is in some way made up by a softness in the timbre that suggests this Turandot's heart has gone some way to thawing from the start. Heidi Stober brought a highly attractive, gently lyrical voice to her sympathetic Liù, and Simon Lim an impressive, powerful if also rather soft-grained bass to Timur.

Monday, 1 December 2014

ETO: Life on the Moon

Hackney Empire, October 17

[From OPERA, December 2014, pp. 1572-3]

At a time when Haydn seems increasingly sidelined in the concert hall—at least in Britain, where not a single work of his was programmed in the 2014 BBC Proms—we should welcome any opportunity to hear one of his 15 operas. It’s just a shame, then, that despite ETO’s best (and arguably slightly excessive) efforts, his Il mondo della luna proved so forgettable on the first night of the company’s autumn season. There’s plenty of charming music, of course, the Act 2 finale in particular, but it does nothing to flesh out the entirely conventional characters of Carlo Goldoni’s libretto, two of which, including the castrato role of Ernesto, had in any case been quietly excised from ETO’s show (performed in James Conway’s witty translation). It’s also a work that betrays the circumstances of its commission in every bar: as a jolly entertainment composed to celebrate an Esterházy family wedding in 1777, it’s a comedy that’s all molar and no incisor.   

Perhaps acknowledging its deficiencies, the company had engaged Cal McCrystal (whose credits include being Physical Comedy Director for the National Theatre’s One Man, Two Guvnors) to squeeze the laughs out of the material—and then pile on plenty more on top. As such, with a cast giving its all, and attractive designs by takis—a Baroque garden that gave much scope for visual gags, and which was draped in white for the ‘moon’ in Act 3, plus lots of imaginative lunar costumes—there was no denying that there was a full evening’s worth of clowning around, even if, by the second half at least, I’d started to feel immune.

The whole thing would have been a lot less convincing, however, had it not been delivered by singers so clearly having a great deal of fun, right from an introduction—containing an account of the action, as well as gentle mocking of the cast—by the tenor Ronan Busfield. He also bore a great deal of the comic burden as the servant Cecco, which drew attention away from some eminently decent singing. As his boss, the quack astronomer Ecclitico, Christopher Turner sang and acted with relish. Andrew Slater brought easy volume and plenty of comic bluster to the duped Buonafede. Jane Harrington, as Clarice (the two daughters for Buonafede in the original were here amalgamated into one) didn’t quite have the agility for all of Haydn’s demands, but sang with spirit, as did Martha Jones as Lisetta, Buonafede’s predictably spunky maid.

Christopher Bucknall managed to highlight some of the score’s delights, which mainly featured the mellifluous wind soloists of the period-instrument Old Street Band; the string playing was occasionally a little raw, but buoyant and lively.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Suor Angelica & Gianni Schicchi - Royal Academy of Music

Having been away last week, I was able to catch the RAM's Puccini double bill only at its final performance. I'd heard great things and was not disappointed--for this college to be able to field two different casts (I saw the second, on November 24) for such an undertaking was extremely impressive, while what one imagines was a generous rehearsal period meant that Schicchi, in particular, came across with a tack-like sharpness to match the brilliantly tacky costumes of William Kerley's cleverly updated production. Jason Southgate's economical design kept Suor Angelica kept simple and clear, its sort-of apotheosis all the more moving for its modesty of means; Schicchi became joyously cluttered, with a smart central idea of making Buoso an art collector, the individual elements of his legacy various artistic depictions of what the libretto--loosely and colloquially translated in the surtitles--specifies.

There were some great performances. Emily Garland was a brave and moving Angelica, Anna Harvey (who I last saw as an alarmingly convincing Ariodante) was here transformed into a steely, evil-librarian Zia Principessa. Ed Ballard made a convincingly cock-sure Schicchi, while Eve Daniell deserves a special mention for her transformation from a chastely giggling Suor Genoviefa to a tottering, tarty Nella--others also made the switch from the first work's sorority to the second's money-grubbing family.

Peter Robinson conducted both pieces lovingly, and in turn made me realise afresh what masterpieces they are. Richard Jones's staging of Suor Angelica as part of his Royal Opera Trittico in 2012 was, I'll admit, the first time I'd seen the work staged, having missed ENO's staging from a decade earlier. It cured me for good of my slight squeamishness towards that work's conclusion. It's a kitschfest on paper ('The miracle begins,' the stage directions tell us, 'The little chapel is flooded with light. The door opens slowly to reveal the church filled with angels ... The Queen of solace appears in the doorway, and in front of her, a blond child, all in white, etc. etc.'), but Jones staged it as an almost unbearably moving drug-induced hallucination as part of a production that had at its centre a potent criticism of institutionalised religion (and religious institutions). I was hoping to find a clip from YouTube, but it seems like the Royal Opera and Opus Arte have managed to enforce their copyright -- I can't imagine for one moment that no one's tried to upload it. Get the DVD/Blu-ray, though, if you don't own it already.

Anyway, it's strange, perhaps, but I rarely find Gianni Schicchi any less moving. Perhaps it's all to do with watching A Room with a View as a teenager.

I don't need to bang on about 'O mio babbino caro', but the moment when that melody seeps into Rinuccio's earlier little aria is even more moving, I find -- more spontaneous than Lauretta's calculated, manipulative appeal to her father. Certainly, however, the Florence Tourist Board must feel a little indebted to Puccini for both.

Finally a word for the odd one out, Il tabarro, the first panel of the triptych, and the one whose requirement for verismo big guns makes it an inadvisable prospect, one can safely assume, for student voices. London can look forward to a staging of all three at Opera Holland Park next summer, though. In the meantime, here's the great duet for Georgetta and Luigi, made especially great for the fact that it deals less with idealised love than love that grows, with powerful psychological realism, out of a mutual desire for escape from the dank drudgery of life on a Parisian barge--which, Puccini's score makes clear, is actually far less appealing than it might sound.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Staging the Secession: the revolutionary career of Alfred Roller

[From OPERA, November 2014, pp. 1360-5]

Alfred Roller
Max Mell’s brief 1922 biography of Alfred Roller tells us that when asked as a child what he wanted to be when he grew up, Roller would reply, ‘someone who’s allowed to go backstage’. It seems like an almost comically modest ambition for the artist-turned-stage-designer who would prove to be so significant a figure in early-20th-century Austro-German theatre and opera. Inevitably, though, Roller stands in the shadow of two great musical collaborators: Mahler, with whom he helped create a brief golden age at the Vienna Hofoper at the beginning of the century; and Richard Strauss, for many of whose operas he provided important designs, and with whom he shares a 150th anniversary this year (Roller was born in Brno on 2 October 1864).

In retrospect, it’s easy to see Roller as the figure that the Haus am Ring was in desperate need of to provide a visual complement to the musical reforms Mahler—appointed its director in 1897—had introduced. The son of a distinguished graphic artist and teacher, Roller showed an interest in art from an early age. He moved to Vienna in 1884 and, respecting his father’s desire that he take a suitably professional course in his life, first read law and art history at the university, before being drawn to courses in painting and architecture at the Akademie der bildenden Künste. He was a founder member of the Viennese Secession, and co-editor of its official journal, Ver Sacrum, for which he provided illustrations—including for the cover of its first issue. He joined the staff of the Vienna School for Applied Arts (the Kunstgewerbeschule) in 1900 and succeeded Carl Moll as the Secession’s president in 1902.

The next important chapter of Roller’s artistic life began that same year, when he masterminded the Secession’s famous Beethoven exhibition, built around Max Klinger’s vast Beethoven Monument. Another of the exhibition’s main features was Klimt’s Beethovenfries (still exhibited in the Secession building) and Roller’s own fresco Die sinkende Nacht took up position behind Klinger’s Beethoven, its apparently explicit Wagnerian overtones undermined only slightly by the fact that opposite it was another, less overtly Tristanesque fresco, Der werdende Tag (‘The Dawning Day’), by Adolf Böhm.

Plans to have Mahler contribute by conducting the Vienna Philharmonic and the Hofoper chorus in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony foundered on what—according to Mahler’s own account—was the mercenary attitude of the orchestra (in typical Viennese fashion, it turned into a scandal, accompanied by much claim, counter-claim, speculation and finger-pointing in the press).

There are contradictory accounts of the first meetings between Mahler and Roller, which took place around this time—one involving Roller sketching designs for Tristan on a café tablecloth, another involving a Tristan design Roller was supposed to have exhibited. Most likely is that the two men met at Moll’s house, and that the conversation led quickly onto Wagner in general, and Tristan in particular. It was the last of the great Wagner works that Roller had got to know, and he had been gripped by it like no other, never missing a performance at the Hofoper, even if, he claimed, he tended to sit through them with his eyes closed.

Roller was critical of the Hofoper’s existing design team of Anton Brioschi and Heinrich Lefler; Mahler seems to have had little admiration for them either. Brioschi, though a fine artist, was an establishment figure who had followed in his father Carlo’s footsteps at the Hofoper and honed his style under Simon Quaglio (responsible for the scenery of the inadequately old-fashioned Munich premieres of Rheingold and Walküre). Brioschi was increasingly out of fashion in a Secessionist Vienna keen to unleash the full power of Wagner’s works; Hermann Bahr, always a reliable barometer of the city’s prevailing artistic attitudes, said that he ‘painted bad designs to perfection’.

Lefler was a co-founder of the Hagenbund (an alternative artistic movement to the Secession, but one with similar aims) and brother-in-law of Joseph Urban, who would later became an important stage designer in New York. But although Lefler certainly had some vitalizing influence after he joined the Hofoper as Brioschi’s assistant in 1900, it seems to have been limited. Mahler gave the responsibility for the designs of the new Tristan to Roller, and did so straight after that first meeting. 

Both Mahler and Roller, it seems, were well versed in the writings of the Swiss theorist Adolphe Appia, who argued for a theatre not of illusion but one of suggestion—an ‘Andeutungsbühne’ rather than a ‘Illusionsbühne’, which would rely on and exploit the viewer’s imagination rather than restrict and restrain it with literalism. As Patrick Carnegy notes in his Wagner and the Art of the Theatre, Mahler reportedly welcomed Roller’s idea of ‘a stage on which everything is only intimated’.

As with many of Roller’s designs, it’s difficult in our seen-it-all-before, post-Regietheater age to appreciate quite how revolutionary the Mahler-Roller Tristan was—each act, after all, showed the settings Wagner’s score specified. But, as Carnegy points out, only two decades after Wagner’s death it was almost unheard-of to create a production that didn’t take as its starting point Wagner’s own Munich production of 1865, or even the more questionably ‘authoritative’ Bayreuth staging of 1886, realized by his widow.

It was also a production that sought at every point to reflect and complement the mood of the score, and one that used lighting as it had never been used before, as an expressive tool—even almost, in the symbolic use of colour, as an expressive language in and of itself, rather than as simply a means of illuminating painted backcloths. Props and scenery were, for once, three-dimensional, a fact that offered, through the possibilities of shadow, yet further expressive opportunities.

Further important productions of the Mahler era included a staging of Wolf’s Der Corregidor in 1903, as well as an architecturally imposing Fidelio in 1904, the massiveness of whose sets (and resultant lengthy scene changes) arguably played a part in Mahler’s decision to insert the Leonore No. 3 overture before the final scene—a tradition that persists in Vienna to this day. The 1906 production of Don Giovanni was, if anything, a bolder experiment, in which four ‘Roller Towers’, as they were dubbed, were fixed, two on each side of the stage, framing the action and serving multiple purposes while the scenery behind was changed.

It was an idea that allowed unprecedentedly swift scene changes but which was also in part motivated by an ‘authentic’ desire to reconstitute the 18th-century idea of the two-part stage—all but banished in modern theatres of the time—with the ‘proscenium’ the domain of the principals, the stage itself reserved for the ballet, the chorus, the special effects and the extras.

There were further innovations for a new Rheingold and Walküre—the former performed, for once, without an interval, the latter uncut and with a design for the Walkürenfels that was strongly reminiscent, Carnegy has suggested, of Appia’s own design for Act 3 of that opera. The simple choreography Roller encouraged for Iphigénie en Aulide in 1907—the final Mahler-Roller production—showed once more the concern shared by both men that stage action should reflect primarily the music, creating opera performance not as a disconnected agglomeration of elements but, rather, as something approaching the ideal of the Gesamtkunstwerk.

The Ring project never reached full fruition, with Mahler resigning at the start of the 1907-8 season; Roller, without Mahler there, lost control over the remaining instalments. Still, he produced designs for several new productions, including the first Vienna Elektra in 1909, the year that Roller returned to teaching, taking up the directorship of the Kunstgewerbeschule.

But as his close working relationship with Mahler was coming to an end, so began another chapter—that with the triumvirate that would, a decade later, set up the Salzburg Festival: Strauss, Hofmannsthal and Reinhardt. Roller’s activities had for some time also included work in the spoken theatre, and he had designed important pre-war productions for Reinhardt, including the director’s massive 1911 productions of Oedipus the King, The Oresteia and Jedermann in Berlin’s Zirkus Schumann. It was in that same year that Roller provided the designs for the 1911 Dresden premiere of Der Rosenkavalier, which Reinhardt, joining the creative team late in the day, had been instrumental in successfully bringing to the stage in the face of the internal politics of the Semperoper.

Unusually, those iconic, much-reproduced designs also became part of the work itself, part of the publisher’s property and—in an interesting development for a designer whose work is often seen as a precursor to Regietheater—an essentially inalterable element for anyone wishing to perform the work themselves, at least in the first few years of the opera’s existence. But if Roller’s work on Rosenkavalier was deemed a success, Hofmannsthal, in particular, was dissatisfied with his designs for Die Frau ohne Schatten, premiered in 1919 in an Operntheater (the Viennese house was briefly without either of its prefixes, ‘Hof-’ or ‘Staats-’) under the control of Strauss and the conductor Franz Schalk. It lacked the necessary Baroque theatrical magic, he said, even if, as with Der Rosenkavalier, the librettist and the designer had worked in detail on a Regiebuch—a ‘direction book’—to help fix the idea of how the work should be performed.

The team behind the first performance of Der Rosenkavalier
Roller had helped create the aesthetic languages that defined these two Strauss-Hofmannsthal operas, and was involved in important, technically brilliant postwar Viennese stagings of Palestrina (1918), Die Gezeichneten (1920) and Die tote Stadt (1921). He also provided costumes for the magnificent first Viennese performances (glamorously double-cast and conducted by Toscanini) of Turandot in 1928. The ‘director’—inasmuch as modern parlance can be applied to the differently defined roles of the time—on that occasion was Lothar Wallenstein, with whom Roller also collaborated on important Viennese Verdi stagings in the late 1920s.

Maria Nemeth as Turandot in the Roller-designed
production in Vienna
A brief sketch like this of so long a career inevitably misses out some important achievements: a Shakespeare cycle at Vienna’s Burgtheater in the early ’20s, for example, the first Viennese performance of Salome (at the Volksoper in 1910), and extensive work at the Salzburg Festival. But one final production, at a rival festival, deserves mention: the 1934 Parsifal at Bayreuth, which, after much wrangling, replaced Wagner’s own 1882 staging. Politics bubbled around the new production with wholly predictable ferocity, with hard-line Wagnerians, determined to preserve the Master’s staging, coming up against Hitler’s own desire for a new production; and Roller—despite, in the words of Frederic Spotts, being ‘ill and in his cups’—was given the responsibility. In the end, he produced a staging ‘little different from the sacrosanct original’.

Hitler’s reasons for choosing Roller were complex, but had their roots in the designer’s time in Mahler’s Hofoper. The 19-year-old Hitler, a budding artist who greatly admired Roller’s Wagner productions, had, through a series of acquaintances, managed to gain an invitation to visit the great designer, to show him some of his work. However, as Brigitte Hamann has outlined (in Hitler’s Vienna: A Dictator’s Apprenticeship, Oxford University Press, 1999), when the day came, the young man bottled it.

That meeting that never happened offers a tantalizing suggestion of a path that history never took, and it’s unclear—without burrowing into the archives—what Roller thought of that young artist’s subsequent choice of career. It was also lucky, in a way, that he didn’t live to see the horrors that would come of it. Roller himself died in 1935; his son Ulrich, also an important designer, who worked on, among other things, the first Viennese performance of Strauss’s Daphne in 1940, wasn’t so lucky, perishing on the Eastern Front in late 1942.

Much of Roller’s achievement is difficult to gauge today: the impressions of his productions that can be pieced together only from eye-witness accounts and extant sketches and photographs are inevitably imperfect and unsatisfactory, and the importance of design and the visual aspect of opera was not, a century ago, deemed as central as it is now. Some, too, might regret the developments he helped pioneer, and the boundaries he helped break down. In the anniversary year that he shares with a composer with whom he worked so closely, though, it’s perhaps time to remember how important he was in revolutionizing the visual side of the multi-faceted art form that is opera.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

ENO: The Girl of the Golden West; WNO: Mosè in Egitto

[From The Spectator, October 11]

Puccini’s La fanciulla del West is one of those works that, one suspects, some modern audiences struggle to keep a straight face through. The hero, for a start, decides to call himself Dick Johnson. The piece’s Wild West trappings, long since staled into Hollywood cliché, still also seem a strange fit for the operatic stage (it was performed here as The Girl of the Golden West, with Kelley Rourke’s translation delivered in a variety of American accents). The redemptive, into-the-sunset conclusion takes for granted a belief that capitalism in its most primitive, brutal form could leave the hearts of a group of hardened Gold Rush miners capable of forgiveness. That it might have done, ENO’s programme told us, is not actually that wide of the mark, historically speaking. But we still rely heavily on Puccini’s score—so bracing in its wide-open vistas, but also so warm, melodic and irresistibly seductive—to shoot down our cynicism and string up our disbelief.

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