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.         

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