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.

[continue reading here

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Interview: Ludovic Tézier

[From OPERA, October 2014, pp. 1212-20]

Among the oft-repeated refrains of operatic doom-mongers, the lament regarding today’s dearth of baritones with the wherewithal—in terms of technique, stylistic sense and basic vocal apparatus—to tackle Verdi’s great roles is one of the most common. But if this is heard more regularly in Britain then elsewhere, it might well be due to the fact that Ludovic Tézier has sung here so rarely in recent years. In 1997 and ’98—‘when I was young, thin and charming’, the French baritone remembers with a laugh—he donned Raimbaud’s habit in Glyndebourne’s Le Comte Ory.

But his only appearances at Covent Garden have been in 2009’s concert performances of Linda di Chamounix (subsequently released on Opera Rara), as Massenet’s Albert in 2004, and as Belcore in the Laurent Pelly L’elisir d’amore when it was new in 2007. The reactions in these pages to those two staged performances neatly sum up Tézier’s primary virtues: Max Loppert, reviewing the Werther, hailed ‘the best lyric baritone to have emerged from France in many years and aristocratically handsome to boot’; in the Donizetti, ‘Tézier sang his music cleanly and strongly’, wrote Richard Fairman.

Britain’s loss has been the rest of the operatic world’s gain. But when we speak, it’s clear that Tézier is a remarkably relaxed customer, for whom the health of the voice is more important than any ambitions to conquer the great stages. Nevertheless, the big Verdian engagements are there: Posa, in both French and Italian, is a signature role, and has been in his repertoire for nearly a decade; his performances as Don Carlo to Jonas Kaufmann’s Don Alvaro in Munich’s La forza del destino last autumn and again this summer were universally praised; April saw him sing Verdi’s other baritone Don Carlo in Monte-Carlo’s new Ernani; he was Germont père in Paris’s new Traviata in June; Renato has long been in his repertoire.

This summer also saw him sing Alphonse XI opposite Juan Diego Flórez and Elīna Garanča in concert performances of Donizetti’s La Favorite in Salzburg. But his schedule is still punctuated with performances of roles one might have assumed he’d have left behind: next year he sings Albert (Werther) in Vienna, and he was still stepping out as Marcello in Paris last season, where he expands his Puccini repertoire this month, taking on Scarpia for the first time.

It’s no surprise that the music of French composers features heavily in Tézier’s repertoire: Massenet’s baritone version of Werther has proved something of a calling card for him (often jumping in for indisposed tenors), as has, more predictably, Escamillo, with which he made his Met debut a decade ago. French works by Italian composers (not only La Favorite and Don Carlos, but also, opposite Alagna and Dessay, Lucie de Lammermoor in Lyon and on disc) inevitably play to the virtues that have also made Tézier a valuable champion of rarer French repertoire.

His performance in the title role on Naïve’s release of Bizet’s Ivan IV, for example, led Rodney Milnes to describe him as ‘a classic French baritone with warmly focused tone and a real sense of musical line who sings off the words like his great predecessors’. Those predecessors were a formative influence, but only once he had been forced to abandon an early dream of tenor stardom and once his teacher, the former soprano Claudine Duprat, had given him discs of Michel Dens, Ernest Blanc and Robert Massard. ‘I was not trying to copy their vocalism: they were mature when they made those recordings, and I was not. I had no way to imitate the colour, but I did try to imitate the style, to find the way to breathe and sustain the phrase.’

Asked when he decided to become a singer, he turns the question on its head. ‘I never decided to be a singer. If once you take a heroin shot, that doesn’t necessarily mean you decide to be a junkie. No, you try it, and then it’s in your blood. For me it was opera!’ Of his time growing up in Marseille he says, ‘We lived very simply, and I had parents who saved nothing for themselves: everything they earned was for me and my sister.

‘I had the fortune at the time of getting into the paradis at the Opéra de Marseille for nearly nothing. I was 13 or 14 and I saw Parsifal. My father thought I was mad, but he said, “If you want to go, I’ll buy you the best place that I can”. If he had been able to come with me, he would have, but we couldn’t afford two seats. So I went to the theatre alone to attend this performance, and this first “shot” was just like a dream.’

His father—‘quite a guy, something very special’—was an autodidact who devoured second-hand books, started working in a Marseille bakery aged 13 and ended up running the ticket-machine systems in the city’s Métro. ‘I once did a chess competition when I was very young,’ Tézier recalls; ‘my father looked at it and said, “oh, that’s interesting”. Two months later he was beating me! With such a Commendatore at home, it was not easy for a young man, but fortunately he couldn’t sing very well, so that was my way to exist.’

And those first attempts at singing were made at home, alone, in a house where music was all around. ‘I never got “interested” in music, because I was born in it. No one at home played an instrument. We were just listeners. From Jacques Brel, passing through Beethoven and then the Beatles—at home, there was only good or bad music, no “classical”. I hardly dare say what I’m listening to now. My father-in-law is a fan of heavy metal so we have Black Sabbath in common—tremendous musicians and tremendous workers. And I’m a desperate fan of the violin.’

The ‘beautiful voices on scratchy records’ he heard at home are to this day like the ‘madeleine de Proust’ for Tézier. It just so happened, however, that many of those were tenors: ‘Corelli (not the worst), André D’Arkor (a wonderful Belgian tenor, so beautiful), and Georges Thill, of course. And naturally I was tempted to sing the same arias, because I was listening to them all day long, and trying to sing the same music. And it was not without any trouble—now we know why!—but I used to sing along to records, never in front of my parents. They had absolutely no idea.

‘The voice was really high then, and I could actually reach the tenor tessitura—in my way, which I thought was the right way. And then I met my first teacher—who to this day is the only person who I see regularly—and she said to me straight away, “You’re not a tenor. But you could probably be a good baritone.” I was really disappointed, to tell you the truth. Then I learned that once you’re born a baritone, you have to get along with it. This is something physical, you cannot change it.’

Then came a first competition, which Tézier won. ‘I said to my parents, “You know, I want to be a singer.” And that was when I was about 18.’ He was surprised by his father’s attitude to this decision: ‘I was expecting a kind of fury, that he’d tell me I had to go and find a “real” job. But absolutely not. He asked what this school of singing was, and I explained, and he said to me—I remember precisely—“But do you really want to do that?”. I said, “I’m young, I want to try it, I don’t know”. Because you don’t know.’

Tézier hedged his bets early on, studying economics while also taking singing classes in the Centre National d’Artistes Lyriques, in the same Marseille quartier as his university. But the singing soon took over, and he went to the Atelier Lyrique at the Opéra de Paris. ‘That should have involved doing roles, but at the time, the link to the Opéra was near to nothing. We were studying in the building but we had no opportunity to sing on stage. So I was studying every day in a small studio with professors.’

Among these professors was Michel Sénéchal, the veteran French tenor who was director of the Atelier at the time, and whom Tézier describes as ‘part of our history, more than clever, a very special man with a tremendous heart. He’s not part of the theatre; he is the theatre. He knows e-v-e-r-y trick, and this is very important for a young singer. And if he tells you how to do something, you have to pay attention. And we would spend hours speaking about the job and how to do it. Today I still use some of those small tricks, and, 25 years later, they still make me smile.’

A further key event came when Tézier had a chance to sing for Christa Ludwig, who organized an audition for him with an agent in Zurich, which then led to the baritone, at the age of 22, joining the ensemble of Oper Luzern. She must have seen a special talent, I suggest. ‘Maybe. I was a very good singer when she was in the room. But when she left the room, I was not good any more! There are very few people like that. She improves you. Just her presence is kind of magnetic, and you’re happy to sing for her.

‘And then you try it again at home and it’s terrible! And I wouldn’t say that I was already an opera singer,’ says Tézier of himself at the time he joined the Swiss company, ‘but I had some weapons.’ His first major Lucerne role, Don Giovanni in 1992, earned a complimentary review in these pages: ‘The title role was sung by a polished young French baritone, Ludovic Tézier,’ wrote Andrew Clark, ‘who gave all the notes full value, impressively so in the Champagne Aria.’

Other roles in Lucerne included a rare excursion into English repertoire as Demetrius in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as well as Marcello, Escamillo, Sharpless and Count Almaviva. But Tézier was increasingly expected to tackle larger and larger roles, for which he didn’t feel ready. He returned to France when Jean-Pierre Brossmann invited him to sing the Figaro Count at the Opéra de Lyon in 1995.

A stint with the Lyon ensemble followed, and then came the first invitations to Toulouse, an important house in Tézier’s career, whose audience he still counts as his ‘home crowd—in the way, I would say, that my father was: probably my greatest supporters, but also the ones who expect the most. And to tell you the truth, I also expect from myself to give something special here.’

Certainly the Théâtre du Capitole’s medium-sized, 1,300-seat auditorium has
provided a good testing ground. ‘This is where I’ve started with some of the most beautiful parts—and some of them perhaps not expected from a Frenchman.’ So, in 1998, the year in which Tézier and Garanča were awarded joint second place in Plácido Domingo’s Operalia competition (behind Erwin Schrott), he sang Schaunard in Toulouse and made the jump to Zurga in Les Pêcheurs de perles.

He tackled another major French part—the lead in Thomas’s Hamlet—in 2000 (alternating with Thomas Hampson), and also his first and, as yet, only Wagner role, Wolfram. In 2003 came Yevgeny Onegin, the role also of the Tézier’s La Scala debut, in 2005. ‘I opened the score and started by learning “Ya … ochen … shchastliv”,’ he says of his first encounter with Onegin. ‘I had to be patient. It took a year, but I love it. Now I can speak a bit of the language; to meet a culture, you have to.’ Yeletsky is now also in his repertoire, as well as Gryaznoy in The Tsar’s Bride.

Nicolas Joel, then Toulouse’s boss, came close to persuading Tézier to tackle Jokanaan (at one stage also slated for performance at La Monnaie) and Mandryka. What happened, I ask? The answer is characteristically straightforward. ‘I trusted Nicolas—I was singing Schaunard when he asked me to do Zurga, and there’s a huge gap between those roles. Then he really wanted me as Mandryka. I checked the score and it looked good, but it was just too early. Not only because I want to have a 40-year career, but also because I wanted to survive the part on stage. Especially with Mandryka or Jokanaan, you can begin like a fireball and vanish in ten minutes. I wasn’t ready technically, and if I could have done this properly at the time, I would probably have begun what we call “la grande carrière” earlier. And I knew that when I refused it. But I’ve no regrets, because I’m here today.’

This sort of patience and care is perhaps what one might expect from a singer, prone to a certain amount of self-deprecation, who describes himself as ‘kind of a diesel’. He explains: ‘It takes a while to warm up. It’s good not to push. If a door opens, you have to go for it, but you have to wait your turn.’ He also characterizes himself as an artisan: ‘To be an artist, you have to work hard as an artisan, although I know this isn’t very modern today, where you’re expected to be a born artist. Even Mozart had to learn a bit!’

Taking his lead from the gender of ‘la voix’ in French, Tézier personifies his voice as ‘she’ and adopts a gentlemanly attitude towards ‘her’. ‘We’re not getting younger,’ he explains, ‘so you have to follow your voice—to help her, to be very cautious and very nice with her, to seduce her.’ And the relationship with the voice trumps everything else: ‘If the voice is healthy and good, I’m healthy and good. If the voice is lazy or tired, I’m sad and totally depressed.’

That relationship is clearly going well, even if Tézier seems as reluctant to offer details of long-term plans as he is to talk about the nitty-gritty of his technique. He adopts a philosophical attitude: he will tackle new roles if he’s offered them at the right time. Scarpia is one significant addition, as will be Rigoletto, a role he has sung so far only in special performances in the small town of Besançon, east of Dijon. His Gilda on that occasion was his wife, the soprano Cassandre Berthon—‘a great singer, and I’d say that even if she wasn’t my wife!’.

The conductor was Jean-François Verdier. ‘For my taste, he is one of the best French conductors. He’s in charge of a small but good orchestra in a small structure there, and we wanted to do something with him. We decided to do Rigoletto together, to build our own project. So we did a new production in ten days, with only beginners on the stage. It was quite an event in Besançon. I was just back from the Met, but there was a very special energy, and this Rigoletto, still today, gives me goose bumps. To sing with the woman you love in your arms at the end, though, was tough. She was so good at that moment, so I had to think about rugby or whatever during “Gilda! Mia Gilda!”—I wouldn’t have been able to sing otherwise!’

Rigoletto is one of the three operas Tézier has said are his favourites, and he’s planning to tackle the title role in more conventional circumstances in Toulouse, although not until the 2015-16 season at the earliest. The other two are Otello and Parsifal. Are roles in those works in his sights too? The answer is characteristically non-committal, but, in the case of the Verdi, it sets Tézier off on some more personal history.

‘Shakespeare fascinated me as a child, because—believe it or not—on French TV in the late ’70s and early ’80s, there would be those beautiful Royal Shakespeare Company stagings—in English, with subtitles. At that time culture was open for everybody. Try to get that now, and you have to pay for it. Of course I was ten or 11 and I couldn’t understand a word. But I was already trying to follow with subtitles and already listening to the music, because this is pure music. People in France and Germany say the English never had a great musician, and I usually say, “They did: William Shakespeare”. Purcell is good. Shakespeare is better. Sorry about that!

‘Of course I have sung Thomas’s Hamlet on stage, a very nice piece and, until the Yorick scene, actually very close—or as close as possible in French—to the Shakespeare. And it’s a shame that he didn’t do the duel on stage: that would have been tremendous to sing. But I had the fortune to have the famous speech’—he begins to recite Hamlet’s best-known monologue in English—‘which is fascinating. And I could sing it!’ Next on the list, though, is Macbeth, with Iago to follow in good time after that. ‘This is how I will try to play Shakespeare. I will try to disappear on stage—in Donizetti, for example, you can’t, because it’s a bit show-off, it’s bel canto. But I remember watching the Hamlet with my four-year-old son, explaining to him that while you see this is Jacobi coming on stage, you forget it the next second. That’s the ideal. I’m not an actor, nor Derek Jacobi, but I try to think like that.’

On picking up his Strauss plans again, he is relaxed but enthusiastic: ‘I would still like to do them. If they refuse themselves to me—and I say that consciously—I will let them go.’ Amfortas, though, is closer to his heart. ‘I would definitely like to do that. I much prefer Wagner to Strauss—less creamy. In Wagner there is something a great deal more powerful, more grounded, nothing fake. And especially Parsifal. There’s no cream there, this is very real.’

And bigger Wagner, Wotan perhaps? ‘Like every singer and every human being, I’m looking to the moon,’ he answers enigmatically. ‘If you have the chance once and you have the voice—and an angel on your shoulder or the stars aligned in the sky—to be able to sing this music, then sing it! But I don’t want to compromise myself and do it for my own egotistical pleasure. I do it in the shower every day,’ he adds with a laugh, ‘and my soap likes it very much.’

In the meantime, at the other end of the vocal spectrum, he’s just as keen to keep singing Mozart. ‘I’m desperately trying to get my agent to find me some Count Almavivas, because I’m not getting any younger. Maybe also one or two Don Giovannis, which I’d definitely sing differently now from when I was slimmer!’ He goes on to explain his theory about Mozart’s great seducer: ‘You don’t have to be beautiful, you have to be fragile. This is no Casanova, and he’s much more than a seducer—he’s a charmer, in the old sense of the word. It’s about magic.’ His view might be wrong, he admits, but he hopes to be able to explore it on stage.

In the meantime, it looks like London and Covent Garden will have to wait for at least another season to see Tézier return, even though he says he loves both the city and the theatre, describing the Royal Opera as more like an ‘opera home than an ‘opera house’. This month, as well as unveiling his Scarpia, Tézier will reprise Marc-Antoine in Massenet’s Cléopâtre (in concert, as at the 2012 Salzburg Whitsun Festival), and then there’s more Verdi coming up, in the guise of Germont père, in New York in December and Baden-Baden in May.

And as our conversation comes to a close, Tézier reflects briefly on being a père himself, on his own family and home life. He concludes with a touching and, one can’t help feeling, very French metaphor. ‘To think of my wife and my three wonderful children makes me realize that they are my centre. I’m passionate about my job, but it is my mistress. My true love is my family. But my job is a nice mistress, and I love her very much.’

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Salzburg Festival: Charlotte Salomon, Der Rosenkavalier, Don Giovanni

[From OPERA, October 2014, pp. 1249-52]

After György Kurtág failed to deliver his new work on time for last year’s salzburg festival, Marc-André Dalbavie’s Charlotte Salomon became the first of the four operas commissioned by Alexander Pereira for 2013-16 to materialize (seen at the Felsenreitschule on August 2). However, it sounds as though the French composer might also have given the Salzburg management a scare. There had been substantial reworking of the piece’s Epilogue by Dalbavie and his director, Luc Bondy, right up until the start of rehearsals. At a much earlier stage, a complete libretto on the subject had been produced by Richard Millet (the librettist of Dalbavie’s Gesualdo), but this was deemed too literary and replaced by a brand new text—written in German, but largely translated into French—by the artist and writer Barbara Honigmann.

It tells the story of the Berlin-born Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon and draws on
the remarkable set of nearly 800 autobiographical gouaches, entitled Leben? oder Theater? (‘Life? or Theatre?’), that she produced in the final two years of her life, having fled Germany for France. (She died in Auschwitz in 1943, aged just 26.) Salomon designated her work a ‘Singespiel’ (sic) and filled it with jottings and musical allusions.

Honigmann’s libretto reflects the unusual nature of its source, and uses the same fictional, sometimes playful names Salomon produced for herself (she becomes Charlotte Kann) and the major players in her life (her stepmother, a singer, becomes Paulinka Bimbam; her mother’s conductor friend is rechristened Professor Klingklang). Dalbavie’s score takes note of the many musical references, weaving in—and often more or less consisting of—snippets of Carmen’s Habanera, the Bridesmaids’ Chorus from Der Freischütz and more. Salomon herself (the actress Johanna Wokalek, speaking in German) is present on stage as a sort of narrator of her own story, while the characters of that story are embodied by singers (communicating in French).

Johannes Schütz’s set, spread across the width of the Felsenreitschule’s broad, shallow stage, consisted of movable partition walls, doors and a few domestic props; Bondy’s direction was impressively fluid and sure, with an extra dimension provided by projections of Salomon’s own paintings. However, any sense of the innovative or experimental in the piece—its multi-layered premise, and the complexity of how the story and music are built up—was undermined by its resolutely A-to-B narrative trajectory, which prevented Charlotte, or anyone else, from developing as a character. It might have been deliberate strategy to emphasize how Charlotte is, essentially, a young girl, prone to insecurity and romantic crushes, but the work fails to create any powerful sense of chiaroscuro between this and either the tragedy that marked successive generations of her family or the greater tragedy that eventually engulfed her—the inevitable arrival of grotesquely masked Nazis felt automatic and almost trivial. 

Dalbavie’s music is expert, and does an excellent job of digesting quotations and reproducing them in disturbingly skewed form; but otherwise it feels short on identity and imagination: too much of it follows the pattern of rumbling, nervy ostinatos building up to dissonant climaxes, and there’s no sense of cumulative drama. The vocal writing is also rather anonymous, while the Epilogue, which pushes the running time to well over two hours (without an interval), still feels like a work in progress. 

There was excellent work from the singers, with Marianne Crebassa’s rich, unfettered singing as Charlotte Kann standing out. Frédéric Antoun was lyrical and charming as Amadeus Daberlohn (the main object of Charlotte’s desire), while Anaïk Morel brought a rich mezzo to Paulinka. The rest of the cast, often taking multiple roles, all gave committed performances, and the Mozarteumorchester Salzburg demonstrated its versatility in playing the score under Dalbavie’s direction. The net effect, however, was of a piece that was far less memorable or moving than it should have been, and therefore a work that, despite the best intentions, was simply not up to honouring its subject matter.

There were disappointments of a different sort with Harry Kupfer’s new Rosenkavalier, staged for the Strauss anniversary, in which the vaguely-defined action seemed to rattle around with little sense of purpose on the vast stage of the Grosses Festspielhaus (August 1). As with this summer’s other talked-about Rosenkavalier, there was some unconventional casting: on this occasion, a tall, young and handsome Baron Ochs in the shape of Günther Groissböck. Strauss himself in later life emphasized that Ochs should never be reduced to a straightforward oaf, even if Hofmannsthal at the time of the premiere—and a century before Twitterstorms—had despaired of the casting options available to him: ‘If all bass buffos are long and lean and only the Quinquins thick and fat,’ he wrote to his composer, ‘I may as well close down!’. Such casting against convention does, of course, offer potential for reinterpretation and rethinking a familiar work, and the fact that the usual cuts to Ochs’s music in Act 1 had been opened up suggested that there was an attempt to reposition the character as central to the opera’s action (he was, of course, mooted for some time as the title role).

However, Kupfer hardly made anything of the casting, and Groissböck’s unconventional, smartly-dressed, ‘long and lean’ Ochs—sung classily but with a lighter, higher bass than we often hear in the part—seemed to have stumbled into a conventional production that made little effort to accommodate him. The main effect was that, with the loss of the inherently pantomimic and comic in Ochs’s stage persona, the bubble of pretence and artificiality on which the opera so relies was burst, the balance of the drama skewed. Sophie Koch’s familiar Octavian, as a result, felt somewhat sidelined, especially since neither of the character’s relationships—with the Marschallin or with Sophie—was clearly or convincingly defined.

As the Marschallin, Krassimira Stoyanova sang with undeniable elegance and refinement, if not the requisite cream—and I wonder if it was she who had dictated a swiftish tempo for the Trio in a performance that was otherwise not averse to a little wallowing. But she communicated little of the necessary aristocratic poise and was hindered, undoubtedly, by a bizarre green-velvet costume in Act 3.

Mojca Erdmann looked the part as a pert, perky Sophie, but her voice—wiry, pushed and thin—proved itself fundamentally inadequate for the task in hand: the Presentation of the Rose was a trial; the closing bars of the final duet, in which her intonation went awry, were something of a car crash. The secondary cast was strong—including Adrian Eröd as a convincingly desperate if initially dry-voiced Faninal, and Dirk Aleschus as a comically tall Notary—but there was no escaping the fact that this was not a cast on the sort of level that Salzburg should be offering. 

Kupfer’s production in general felt like an unhappy compromise between the traditional and the abstract. Apparently updated to the time of composition, it made a feature of vast black-and-white projections of Viennese buildings, ignoring, it seemed, the important fact that the action of Der Rosenkavalier all takes place indoors. In the first two acts, Hans Schavernoch’s set consisted of movable chunks of glossy, stylized scenery in front of these projections.

There was an entirely different aesthetic for Act 3, when we were presented with an outside tavern—presumably in the Prater—which was whisked away for the trio and final duet, during which Faninal and the Marschallin reappeared in a grand vintage car. Much of it looked nice, but it felt indecisive, and seemed to present the work as being far more complacent and confortable than it is, an impression that was in part reinforced by the broadbrushed luxuriousness—and loudness—of Franz Welser-Möst’s conducting of the Vienna Philharmonic.

The biggest dud, however, was Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s dismal new Don Giovanni, the second instalment of his Da Ponte trilogy (seen on August 3 at the Haus Für Mozart). Rolf Glittenberg’s lavish single set presented us with a grand, wood-panelled hotel lobby, with a bar stage left and a central stairway leading up to multiple rooms above. I spent much of my time wondering which other operas this set might have been better employed for; its suitability for Mozart’s work was far from apparent, and the production offered no insight into why Bechtolf might possibly have deemed it appropriate.

One advantage was that Zerlina and Masetto could be portrayed as hotel staff, reflecting for once their social standing, but otherwise there was no sense of what anyone else was doing there. There were hints of a powerful military in the Commendatore and several uniformed extras—I think we were in the early 20th century—but this, like the appearance of a horned devil to save Don Giovanni from the chaos of the Act 1 finale, was left unexplored.

The director’s imagination—and the production’s budget—seemed to have been exhausted on the set, so for the supernatural elements the brave cast were left to fend for themselves, with minimal props. Dramatically it was feeble, and intellectually it felt lazy; despite fine work from the cast and orchestra, the production rendered the performance as a whole distressingly boring.

The cast dealt with their assignment with the utmost professionalism, however, with a particularly fine double act from Ildebrando D’Arcangelo’s suave Don Giovanni and Luca Pisaroni’s edgy and sophisticated Leporello. Lenneke Ruiten at times seemed a little stretched by Donna Anna’s music, but brought fire to the characterization, while Anett Fritsch was a fearless Donna Elvira. Andrew Staples’s voice sounded slightly fuzzier than usual as Don Ottavio, but the tenor sang with impressive breath control and impeccable Mozartian elegance. Valentina Naforniţa and Alessio Arduini made a fine, handsome couple as Zerlina and Masetto. Tomasz Konieczny, as the Commendatore, did what he could to bring gravitas to a character otherwise robbed of all dramatic power by the production.

There was high-quality playing once again in the pit, where Christoph Eschenbach conducted the Vienna Philharmonic in a straightforwardly traditional account of the score, in which no tempo jolted and no texture was unduly alarming. In Act 1, in particular, though, the dynamic range tended to feel limited, rarely dropping below mezzo forte. The musical performance was admirable on its own terms, and it’s probably unfair to complain; nevertheless, given the dearth of ideas on stage, a few more ideas in the pit might have been welcome.         

Bayerische Staatsoper: Orfeo

[From OPERA, October 2014, pp. 1268-70]

For the second new production of the Munich Opera Festival, the Bayerische Staatsoper installed itself in Max Littman’s 1901 Prinzregententheater, loosely modelled (in terms of its 1,000-seat auditorium, at least) on Bayreuth’s Festspielhaus and plonked on its own Green Hill in the smart, villa-filled Bogenhausen district of the city across the Isar.

The work was Monteverdi’s Orfeo, the Orfeo Christian Gerhaher, adding another operatic role to his modest tally. David Bösch, a Lübeck-born theatre director increasingly active in opera (recent stagings include Simon Boccanegra in Lyon, as well as Munich’s L’elisir and Frankfurt’s Königskinder), was in charge of a production that showed a mixture of theatrical virtuosity, poetic feeling and the sort of light touch that made a potentially unpromising initial premise—the setting was updated to a loosely-defined hippy community in the 1970s—highly effective, and, in harmony with Monteverdi’s supremely beautiful score, extremely moving.

Much of the production’s trippy, seductive beauty came from Patrick Bannwart’s set, in which long-stemmed, oversize flowers grew swiftly up from the stage during the Prologue, wilting and losing their petals as tragedy struck. In a smart and chilling counterpoint, grotesque cloth-sack figures dangled down like elongated roots into the Underworld, their blank faces brought spookily to life by Falko Herold’s video projections. Otherwise the scenery was minimal but highly effective: the obligatory camper van, a modest chariot (pulled by masked minions) for Caronte. After Euridice’s death, there was a soil-filled rectangle in the centre, representing her grave, of course, but also imbued with much further meaning besides—nothing here felt didactic or literal. 

The straightforward joys of the opening act were conveyed charmingly by the mainly young cast, and even if Gerhaher’s older Orfeo already seemed a little worn by experience compared to his colleagues, he threw himself wholeheartedly into the revels—Elvis moves, singing into a microphone and all. As the drama progressed, though, he was simply superb, acting with moving sincerity and using his voice—so beautifully, delicately projected and impeccably produced—to heart-wrenching effect.

He was surrounded by vivid characterizations from Andrea Mastroni (Caronte), Anna Bonitatibus (Messaggiera and Proserpina), Andrew Harris (Plutone), Lucy Knight (Ninfa) and Mauro Peter’s Vietnam-veteran Apollo. Anna Virovlansky was the personification of innocence as Euridice; Mathias Vidal stood out as an especially vital and engaging Shepherd and Spirit, but his colleagues (Jeroen de Vaal, Gabriel Jublin and Thomas Faulkner) were no less fine.

Yet it was Angela Brower as La Musica and Speranza—in the same grungy, winged costume for both, but full of wide-eyed joy as the former and childlike despair as the latter—who perhaps more than anyone embodied the production’s powerful sense of tragedy impinging so brutally on happiness and innocence. Ivor Bolton, conducting members of the Bayerisches Staats-orchester and the Monteverdi Continuo Ensemble, was unafraid to explore the emotional extremes at both ends of the spectrum, and there were vivid contributions from the Zürcher Sing-Akademie, whose members played various important dramatic roles, too.