Monday, 1 September 2014

Dresden Festival: Feuersnot; Semperoper: Simon Boccanegra

[From OPERA, September 2014, pp. 1110-12]

Within a matter of weeks, the Saxon capital witnessed a new production of Simon Boccanegra and a rare outing for Strauss’s Feuersnot. It seemed strange, however, that the latter, in a performance given under the auspices of the Dresden Festival but billed as a co-production with the Semperoper, employed few of Dresden’s prime Straussian assets—neither the Semperoper (where the piece was premiered in 1901), the Staatskapelle, nor even Christian Thielemann, one of today’s great Strauss conductors. The different sources of funding for the festival and the opera house—the Stadt funds the former, the Staat the latter—is apparently to blame for a relationship between the two entities that is somewhat short on useful symbiosis.

Verdi, however, certainly benefited from the full Semperoper treatment, and at the third performance of Jan Philip Gloger’s new production (June 3) the musical values were extraordinarily high. Thielemann translated the virtues that distinguish his conducting of the German repertoire—weight allied to transparency, a pervading sense of expansiveness that doesn’t preclude, when necessary, the whipping up of stormy drama—into the different musical language of Verdi’s brooding score with remarkable success.

He was aided by playing from his orchestra of the most exquisite refinement and patrician virtuosity, which suggests that their performances of Cav and Pag (very different works, admittedly) at Salzburg next Easter will be something to look forward to. There, however, they won’t have the advantage of the Semperoper’s astonishing acoustic, in which voices are able to project cleanly and clearly over an orchestral sound that is warm, and entirely unrestricted in bloom, clarity and detail.

There were some fine singers to take advantage of this, with a cast headed by the ardent, passionately sung Amelia of Maria Agresta. Here is a voice of uninhibited lyrical beauty, used with generosity and dramatic conviction. As her Adorno, Ramón Vargas initially sounded stretched and a little uncomfortable, but as the performance progressed—and especially in the second act—the voice gained an impressive ringing authority. More problematic was Željko Lučić’s Boccanegra, sung with smooth tone but undermined by wayward intonation that often meant he was distressingly flat. One of the performance’s distinguishing features was the fact that Thielemann encouraged introspection from both Lučić and Kwangchul Youn (as an imposing, if not ideally legato Fiesco), the only times when his interpretation risked feeling too slow.

Gloger’s production was something of a disappointment: a generic, well-executed selection of stock Regie devices without any compelling idea to hold them together. Christof Hetzer’s impressive, rotating unit set consisted of several angular spaces on different levels; it was home to a cast—including a threatening-mob chorus—in modern dress, plus multiple doubles of different ages for the principals, whose wanderings on and off were triggered (to increasingly predictable effect) by key words in the libretto. There were striking images, with Bernd Purkabek’s lighting creating some welcome effects to cut through the pervading gloom, but the pleasures here were primarily musical.

The performance of Feuersnot took place a stone’s throw from the city’s famous opera house, in the courtyard of the residenz, only recently opened up as a usable public space. There was a large stage to house both (on the left-hand side) the Dresden Festival Orchestra—a recently-founded period band whose remit seems to cover several centuries—and (on the right) a large playing area; the Semperoper chorus was arrayed behind. That the first night (June 7) took place in the middle of a heatwave was not only a relief for the (uncovered) audience, but also appropriate for an opera—a satirical pendant, in some ways, to Wagner’s Meistersinger—that’s all about the intoxication of midsummer. It’s also a richly melodic and brilliantly orchestrated work, behind whose satirical intent lies a trenchant critique of bourgeois morality and its hypocritical tendencies.

Philosophically, then, the work paves the way for the masterpieces that would follow; but it does so musically, too, with several hints of Salome, as well as some gloriously boisterous waltzes à la Rosenkavalier. Under Stefan Klingele’s galvanizing musical leadership, it came across thrillingly as well; there might have been a hint of incongruous abstemiousness in the light vibrato of the orchestra’s not terribly numerous strings, but there was no sense of any of the players holding back otherwise.

As Kunrad, the first of Strauss’s thinly-veiled autobiographical baritone roles, Tómas Tómasson had a robustness that served him well, but which was allied to stiffness—in both voice and manner—that made the character rather more ernst than I’m sure Strauss or his librettist, Ernst von Wolzogen, required. By contrast, Rachel Willis-Sørensen’s shiningly lyrical soprano was matched by a persuasive sense of mischief in her characterization of Diemut. Her trio of friends—with hints of both Wagner’s Rhinemaidens and Strauss’s own subsequent Ariadne nymphs—were sung with relish by Angela Liebold (Elsbeth), Simone Schröder (Wigelis) and Carolina Ullrich (Margret). The rest of the large cast was excellent.

One reason for Feuersnot’s rarity is the particularly difficult children’s choruses, all to be delivered—like much of the score—in pun-laden Munich dialect. Here the Kinderchor der Singakademie Dresden was strategically peppered with some of the more youthful-looking members of the excellent Semperoper chorus to provide a perfect balance of security and youthful exuberance.

The modest semi-staging itself (realized by Angela Brandt) made clever use of the space at hand and was largely simple and effective, even if the use of younger doubles of Kunrad and Diemut brought more confusion than clarity. Nothing could detract, though, from a wonderfully invigorating and enjoyable event.

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