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.   

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Deutsche Oper Berlin: Parsifal

Any good Parsifal should ask as many questions as it answers. Philipp Stölzl’s at the Deutsche Oper definitely does that. The first one probably being: why is Klaus Florian Vogt’s Parsifal in modern dress – coincidentally the same slim black tie, white shirt and black trousers combo that he wears in Hans Neuenfels’s Bayreuth Lohengrin – when the rest of the production seems to be about graphic, painterly recreations of historical tableaux.
(photo © Matthias Baus)

We see the Crucifixion during the prelude, while Act 1 is peopled with weary knights, with a mini castle perched upstage right on one of the rocky outcrops that form the set – I couldn’t help thinking of Monty Python, of both The Life of Brian and The Search for the Holy Grail.

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As the evening progresses, though, at least that first question is answered, as time itself shifts forwards. The second act features (and here it’s shades of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) what looks like some sort of Inca temple, which is home to a shaman-like Klingsor. But then we return to that first landscape, several centuries later; the castle is in ruins, and everyone’s dress is now contemporary with Parsifal’s.

Plenty of other questions remain, but there’s no doubting the production’s overall seriousness, my low-brow cultural reference points notwithstanding – a long essay in the booklet provides a much more sophisticated account of the influences. The skill of Stölzl’s stagecraft is never in doubt either, the sure hand with which he directs, in particular, the outstanding Deutsche Oper chorus, often requiring them to keep still for demanding but theatrically striking tableaux.

The end of Act 2 is a bit of a cop out, but several other individual episodes are extremely powerful. The direction of Thomas Johannes Mayer’s brilliantly acted Amfortas is outstanding, particularly in the final act, while the Crucifixion scene is powerfully done, and cleverly fills in the backstory by showing Kundry’s ur-laugh. What these aesthetically powerful moments really added up to wasn't always entirely clear. Perhaps they aren’t really supposed to add up to anything specific at all.

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I also wondered to what extent the mixture of realism and – in the case of the non-illusion of the distant castle – effects that were almost kitschily unrealistic was being ironically framed. Further viewings might or might not make this clear. But happily this is a production that presents its ideas without enforcing a particular interpretation; I’d imagine everyone watching understands and interprets it differently.

Stölzl is also a supremely musical director, the action he presents always complementing what’s emanating from the pit. And in this case that was a wonderfully instinctive and patiently paced account of the score from Donald Runnicles, played with a beauty alternately seductive and piercing. Here was a very respectable cast, too, if not as starry as some that have graced this production since it was unveiled almost exactly four years ago.

Anchoring it all was the imposing Gurnemanz of Stephen Milling. His interpretation is a little neutral, perhaps. The voice can be a bit craggy as it goes up and he doesn’t yet enliven the words as some can – and there are, of course, lots of words. But he sings seriously, and his big burly bass fills the theatre with ease. Klaus Florian Vogt’s Parsifal is a known quantity: reliable and ethereal-sounding, better at communicating wonder than the erotic tensions of Act 2. Mayer, as Amfortas, is vocally maybe a size smaller than ideal for this house – an impression emphasised by the voice’s soft edges – but his was nonetheless a powerful and moving performance.

Klingsor's domain (photo © Matthias Baus)

Daniela Sindram’s Kundry was extremely impressive. She acted compellingly throughout and had all the notes, even if her rich mezzo timbre seemed to lose a bit of its sharp focus as Act 2 progressed. Derek Welton sang imposingly as Klingsor – perhaps rather too much so, pushing his velvety voice harder than it needed to be pushed. To round it off, Andrew Harris’s was possibly one of the healthiest sounding Titurels I’ve heard.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Komische Oper Berlin: Rusalka

Timothy Richards as the Prince
(Photo © Monika Rittershaus)
This Rusalka, first unveiled in 2011, was the first Barry Kosky production at the Komische Oper for me (and only, I’m ashamed to say, my second ever after his Saul for Glyndebourne in 2015). There were some of the director’s trademarks – which I’d picked up during that Saul, as well as through discussions of his work – including a bit of cross-dressing grotesquery, but this was a production very much in line with the wonderful Homoki Meistersinger I’d enjoyed so much last week.

The set is again simple, consisting of little more than a smaller recessed version of the Komische Oper’s proscenium arch around a wall with a door – a bench sits stage left. Dress was, I guess, modern with the occasional Victorian twist: the Prince wore formal white tie; the Foreign Princess was high-class (pipe-smoking) exotic call-girl; Vodnìk, at least as presented by Jens-Erik Aasbø, had some sort of stoic Scandinavian hipster fisherman thing going on.

Rusalka herself, in one of numerous clever but apparently simple touches, had what she wore defined by the Prince, stepping in and out of whatever he presented her with with an increasingly joyless sense of duty. Indeed, Kosky makes it clear right from the start the extent of Rusalka’s tragedy: she has her tail removed in a painful and graphic procedure carried out by Ježibaba and her sadistic simpleton son (the fish skeleton extracted as part of this becomes a visual leitmotif for the production); her happiness is so fleeting as to barely register, while her misery and loneliness in her new life is constantly underlined.

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But what might have become mawkish, or simple depressing, is compelling and beautiful here, thanks both to the detailed direction and to Nadja Mchantaf’s powerfully committed central performance. Her victimhood is never passive; we see her trying to speak, exasperatedly mouthing words that don’t come, and we get a sense of defiance and strength as she is tossed helplessly about, even if that resistance is ultimately fruitless.

The simplicity of the set creates powerful and evocative dreamlike world: the door becomes a focus, for example, and we never know what characters dredged up from the dark unconscious are going to appear through it next. The only hint of water comes in an ingenious projection effect early in Act 3, where the proscenium arches are made to undulate and shimmer; but Rusalka’s otherness is underlined throughout, as is her closeness to other water-borne creatures – ultimately we’re left with an image that seems to say that the human world cares about her as much as it cares for the dying fish that we see being prepared for the banquet.

A fascinating and moving production, then, which only seems to overstep the mark during that first scene in Act 3, where rather too many extras are thrown into the mix, to the detriment of focus and clarity. And, as I’ve already hinted, Mchantaf’s central performance is terrific: dramatically fearless and sung tirelessly with a voice of gleaming security. Although it must be said that she was probably the least successful in getting the words of the German translation across, and, if one’s going to be picky, her phrasing might have had more limpidity to it.

Timothy Richards’s Prince was small-scale, the voice well focused but a little short on heft and ring, but he rose impressively to his big moments. Nadine Weissmann’s Ježibaba was a good mixture of serious and grotesque, and, given the German version (and the fact that I’d seen her in the role in Bayreuth) made me think of an Erda who’d had rather too many special herbal brews. The German text also underlined the similarities between Vodník and Alberich, as well as, of course, the closeness of the Wood Sprites to the Rhine Maidens – Aasbø sang resonantly if a little stiffly as the former; Annika Gerhards, Maria Fiselier and Katarzyna Włodarczyk seemed to be having great fun as the latter. The grandly named Ursula Hesse von den Steinen turned in a grandly – and excitingly – sung Foreign Princess. Christiane Oertel made a strong impression as the Kitchen Boy; Ivan Turšić’s Game Keeper, here a one-armed knife-wielding chef, will also stick in the memory.

Vodnìk and the Wood Sprites – from the original cast (Photo © Monika Rittershaus)

In the pit, Henrik Nánási and his players seemed to take a little while to warm up. The orchestra’s balance could be strange (possibly due to the acoustics from my seat) and occasionally Dvórak’s melodies didn’t flow like they should – the Song to the Moon felt a little chopped up, as did Vodnìk’s Act 2 aria. But the conductor clearly loves this score – as anyone with ears surely should – and offered some impressively Wagnerian climaxes, along with plenty of tenderness.

Further performances this season on October 21 and 30, November 4 and 20, December 22. 

Friday, 14 October 2016

Berlin Philharmonic/Sokhiev: Franck, Rachmaninov & Rimsky-Korsakov

Reviewed for

Franck: Le Chasseur maudit
Rachmaninov: Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini
Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade

Nikolai Lugansky, piano; Berliner Philharmoniker, Tugan Sokhiev (conductor)
Philhamonie, Berlin, 13 October 2016

On paper there was a hint of Classical Pops about this programme under Tugan Sokhiev: essentially two rousing tone poems framing Rachmaninov's evergreen Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. The Franck opener was far from a concert-hall staple, though, and, as it transpired, we got a tautly argued, almost abstract account of the Rachmaninov. The performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade in the second half, meanwhile, took the composer’s ‘Symphonic Suite’ designation to heart – he was worried that audiences would view the piece as ‘just’ pictorial and not appreciate the intricacies of his compositional handiwork...

[Read the full review here]

Monday, 10 October 2016

Komische Oper Berlin: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg; Il barbiere di Siviglia

Tómas Tómasson (Sachs) & Tom Erik Lie (Beckmesser)
Photo (c) Monika Rittershaus
In some ways it’s difficult to explain what made Andreas Homoki’s Meistersinger so beautiful and moving. On paper, it would seem primarily to be defined by what it omits. There’s very little sense of Nuremberg itself, with the set, as such, consisting of just a dozen bits of grey building-shaped lumps of scenery on casters (designs by Frank Philipp Schlößmann). There’s no hint, either, of the ‘darker side’, which I admit I’d come to believe was essential in any staging of this work. In fact, there’s no real Konzept at play – another cardinal sin according some vague version of directorial dogma I’d found myself subscribing to.

The production’s great achievement is that all this omission, though clearly down to some degree to budget restrictions, becomes such a virtue, so creatively and imaginatively used. The empty stage – naked, with all the back-stage bits and bob exposed – itself becomes a leitmotif: it’s what we’re presented with on our arrival, while the scenery is swiftly whipped out of sight for the quintet, or to leave Sachs momentarily abandoned at the close – an effect made so breathtaking, moving and magical by its simplicity. At other times, the blocks of scenery take on a life of their own, almost as an extension to Wagner’s orchestra – bearing down on Walther as he remembers the Masters, adding to Beckmesser’s unease and confusion, toppling over at the climax of the riot, returning in different colours for the Festwiese.    

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Against this backdrop, Homoki is able to work hard at creating believable and likeable characters, brought to life not through McVicar-style microdirection, but simply and naturally. Tómas Tómasson’s Sachs, young and full of life (if dressed to resemble slightly a melancholy Super Mario), was a case in point. His love for Johanni van Oostrum’s Eva (and hers for him) was painfully clear to see, and cleverly amplified by a couple of well-judged directorial touches. Even Tom Erik Lie’s Beckmesser – a gangly throwback to an earlier period, in his renaissance pudding-bowl hair and pointy tailcoats, and very well sung – was so much more than a caricature, disliked personally by Sachs rather than generally despised. Homoki’s direction of the chorus was outstanding, too: here they became a playful, mischievous collection of individuals rather than an unquestioning mob – which is perhaps why Sachs’s final address came across as so straightforwardly inspiring.

Musically, too, things were excellent. Tómasson’s bass baritone, which has felt a little stiff and inflexible when I’ve heard him before, was impressive in this smaller house, despite running out of puff a little. Erin Caves, though he tired a little in the middle of Act 3, sang with a clear, ardent and evenly produced tone as Walther. Van Oostrum was a little underwhelming at first as Eva, but came into her own in Act 3. In fact, the whole thing came together in the final act: the production, which had felt a little grey in the first two, fully revealed its magic; and Constantin Trinks’s conducting – authoritative, flowing but big-hearted – matched it brilliantly. The Komische Oper orchestra played extremely well, too.

The 'Festwiese' – Photo (c) Monika Rittershaus

A friend after the show wondered why Bayreuth – or any larger house – couldn’t stage a production like this. I fear its apparent simplicity would be deemed inadequate and insufficient for such a stage – a cop out, even. Here, though, it let the work speak for itself with powerful eloquence. It was funny, too, but in a way that grew out of the words and music and never undercut the work’s essential seriousness. It was something of a revelation, and I left convinced that Meistersinger was Wagner’s masterpiece.


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Things could hardly have been more different the following evening, the first night of the house’s new Barbiere di Siviglia (I’m reviewing it elsewhere, so will only offer a few more informal thoughts here). The director was Kirill Serebrennikov, a name new to me but an important figure in the theatre scene in his native Russia, apparently, and someone turning increasingly to opera. Perusing the interview with him in the booklet before the start, I came across signs that were both positive and slightly less encouraging. 

In the former category were the observation that Barbiere is a dark comedy (thoughts echoed by the production’s conductor, Antonella Manacorda), and an expression of the desire to explore the small-scale tragedy of Bartolo’s unrequited love for Rosina – taking that into account ‘makes the comedy a little less superficial,’ Serebrennikov suggests. 

By contrast, though, he then tells us: ‘Almaviva’s world is the exact opposite from Bartolo’s – totally contemporary, totally bloodless [‘blutleer’], totally fleshless [‘fleischlos’ – excuse the literal translation]. He and Rosina live entirely virtual lives. It’s about nothing but electronic toys, communication, social media etc.’

It’s a bold gambit to declare these two characters essentially uninteresting and unsympathetic, not least since most of Barbiere revolves around them. Serebrennikov sticks to his guns, though: he removes the drama’s heart and fills the void with a procession of visual gags, many of them revolving around projections (by Ilya Shagalov) of Almaviva and Rosina’s social-media interactions. This starts during the overture, in which Fiorello, promoted to Leporello-style assistant to his master, mucks around with Manacorda. The stage is extended out beyond and round the orchestra pit (into which the orchestra sinks after the overture, before rising up again for the Act 2 finale), and the director makes constant use of this extra space – indeed, the stage area itself isn’t revealed until we meet Bartolo and his world (some sort of antique shop).

(l. to r.) Tansel Aksybek (Almaviva), Dominik Köninger (Figaro),
Nicole Chevalier (Rosina) – photo (c) Monika Rittershaus
There’s no faulting the cast, and there are some good ideas among the dozens Serebrennikov lobs into the mix. Almaviva dressing up as a Muslim refugee rather than a soldier is not quite as crass as it might sound, for example, offering a Biedermann and the Arsonists style critique of Bartolo’s bourgeois politesse – even if it raises a lot of other questions, more dramaturgical than anything else. His return dressed as Conchita Wurst for the music lesson was more in keeping with the rest of the production: it elicited plenty of laughs and oh-no-he-hasn’t! gasps, but didn't make much sense beyond itself. 

We only really got any sort of exploration of Bartolo’s situation during the Act 2 tempesta, where he dressed Rosina in an old-fashioned wedding dress. It was a brief moment of seriousness, too little too late, before the finale brought an apotheosis of Serebrennikov’s dispiriting vision of selfie-obsessed modern life. He’s got a point, I suppose, but it’s never really that clear why it’s a point to be made in this opera. One could just as easily apply it, say, to Meistersinger. Call me grumpy, call me a stick-in-the-mud, but I for one am glad at least that he didn’t get that opportunity.