Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim: Schubert I

Franz Schubert
Symphony No. 1 in D, D82
Symphony No. 3 in D, D200
Symphony No. 2 in B flat, D125

Pierre Boulez Saal, 22 April 2017

As anniversaries go, a 220th isn’t perhaps the most eye-catching. Nonetheless, Daniel Barenboim and the Pierre Boulez Saal are choosing to mark the eleven-score years since the birth of Franz Schubert with a broad-ranging Projekt, featuring all the songs (spread over a few seasons), the piano sonatas (with Barenboim at the piano) and the symphonies (with Barenboim on the podium).

But within the modest proportions and egalitarian in-the-round configuration of Berlin's newest classical venue, this concert, the first in one of two complete symphony cycles, was every bit as much about the Staatskapelle as the Staatsoper’s Generalmusikdirektor...

[Read the full review at Bachtrack]

Monday, 24 April 2017

Deutsche Oper Berlin: La traviata

21 April 2017

I missed out—entirely through my own fault—on catching the final appearance of Götz Friederich’s Ring at the Deutsche Oper. Catching instead the latest revival of his La Traviata (by comparison a mere stripling at 18 years old) might seem a little like second best.

La traviata at the Deutsche Oper (Photo © Bernd Uhlig)
The two events can hardly be compared, though, and Friedrich’s take on Verdi’s evergreen tearjerker is a characteristically smart piece of work. And, as with so many Friedrich productions, it seems to contain many ideas since adopted to various degrees in subsequent stagings. 

Friedrich’s was here being performed for the 135th time, and I couldn’t help but compare it to Richard Eyre’s Royal Opera production, five years older and which has notched up around 170,* a good dozen of which I must have seen.

Eyre’s is classic, with period frocks and plenty of glamour, both in the grand, oversize set and the feel of luxury: it’s as if the Royal Opera’s gilt and velvet has encroached onto the stage. Friedrich’s doesn’t quite meld into the utilitarian grandeur of the interior of the Deutsche Oper’s in the same way, but it certainly reflects the house’s ethos more generally.

And it does have its own imposing grandeur, with Frank Philipp Schlößmann’s single set consisting of a huge room, with multiple huge doors set in each of its walls. Those walls, like the shiny floor, are black. A spartan metal bed is on stage throughout, a long white sheet spilling off it like a bridal train. Violetta starts off there in the Prelude, dragging herself from it with apparent reluctance as the party guests spill in. And of course she ends up back there for the final act; at the end of Act 2 scene 1 (the interval came between scenes in the second act), though, Alfredo curls up with his misery onto it.
Click to enlarge

Costumes are interwar chic, or thereabouts, less as part of any updating than simply as part of the production’s aesthetic, their colour (enhanced by Ulrich Niepel’s lighting) playing off well against the dourness of the dark set. There are a few additional touches that seem typical Friedrich, including jaunty exaggerated dancing from the party guests and the appearance through the back doors at the back of giant nightmarish, puppet-like figures (like commedia dell’arte cousins of Fafner and Fasolt) during Act 3’s carnival music.

During the rest of Act 3 we see what looks like an old graveyard through those doors—perhaps a little too obvious a signifier of Violetta’s impending demise. In the first scene of Act 2, it’s bare tree trunks and a hint of the countryside beyond; Germont’s daughter appears here too, but watches from behind the tree trunks. It’s a canny, clever show, then, and one that gently tugs at the opera’s fabric without distorting its drama and without, either, presenting the sort of updated specifics that can too often entirely undermine the characters' motivation—we still believe here in the society that destroys Violetta.
Click to enlarge

And why the comparison with Eyre, a stalwart show that does the job stylishly and effectively? I suppose it’s because Friedrich’s production, though it paradoxically looks both older and newer, shows that you can have a Traviata that negotiates a middle ground between questioning and refreshing an old warhorse while still functioning as a clearly revivable staple. It’s no doubt the sort of balance, if you'll excuses a moment of anglocentricism, that the Royal Opera in London are hoping Richard Jones’s new Bohème will strike.

Not all revivals themselves feel that fresh, though, and this one took some time to settle down. Giampaolo Bisanti, stepping in to conduct as a late replacement, was occasionally a little brusque, and the playing of the Deutsche Oper orchestra, particular in the first act, was at times alarmingly scrappy. Happily things improved markedly as the evening progressed.

La traviata at the Deutsche Opera (Photo © Bernd Uhlig)

My pick of the principals was Antonio Poli, singing with sunny, forward tone as Alfredo. There’s still a slight lack of robustness in the technique, it seems, that makes him tire a little quickly, but this was lovely, big-hearted and tender singing (his ‘Parigi, o cara’ was a highlight), with every word audible. Dong-Hwan Lee was an impressive Germont, too, even if his baritone, clean and clear in timbre, strikes me as on the light side for this repertoire.

It took me a while to warm to Patrizia Ciofi’s Violetta, not least because the voice itself just can’t fill out the character’s phrases with the youthful warmth and lyrical generosity one wants: the middle-to-lower register is muddy and doesn’t project well, the upper reaches of the voice are often somewhat thin and wiry. She’s a good actor, though, and was properly moving both in the magnificent Act 2 duet with Germont and the final scene, where her quiet, unshowy sincerity won through. 

*My Royal Opera programmes are all in a cupboard in SW9, so I have the operatic Twitter community, and especially Ruth Elleson (@RuthElleson), to thank for furnishing me with this figure. 

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Landestheater Linz: Die Harmonie der Welt

11 April 2017

There aren’t, as far as I’m aware, many operas with links to Linz. Indeed, the Upper Austrian city is probably best known in musical circles for having been home to that most unoperatic of composers, Anton Bruckner. Nevertheless, the Landestheater Linz has made the most of the fact that the Imperial mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler was resident there from the second decade of the 17th century. They commissioned Philip Glass’s Kepler for the city’s stint as European Capital of Culture and premiered it in 2009...

[Read the full review at Bachtrack]

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Berliner Festtage: Die Frau ohne Schatten

Staatsoper im Schillertheater, 9 April 2017

Five years after first being seen at La Scala and three years after hitting the Covent Garden stage – where it remains one of the most successful imports of the Holten era – Claus Guth’s Die Frau ohne Schatten has made it to the Staatsoper in Berlin as the new production for this year's Festtage. The cast is new (with one exception); so too is the conductor.

Semyon Bychkov was prevented at the last minute from presiding over the La Scala opening, but achieved wonders with the Royal Opera House Orchestra in London. It was his absence that was perhaps most keenly felt at this performance (particularly by anyone who saw the production in London)...

[Read the full review at Bachtrack]

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Berliner Festtage: Parsifal

Staatsoper im Schillertheater, 8 April 2017

Making its third consecutive appearance as part of the Staatsoper’s Festtage, Dmitri Tcherniakov’s remarkable Parsifal looks ever more destined to become a staple of the Berlin Easter calendar. Its return next year to Unter den Linden, with slightly modified cast from this year’s, has just been announced. This means, too, that this was the chance to have the rare luxury of hearing the piece, with that world-beating Wagnerian team of Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle in the pit, in the relatively intimate space of the 1,060-seat Schillertheater...

[Read the full review at Bachtrack]

Berliner Festtage: VPO/Barenboim

Mozart, Symphony No. 35 in D, 'Haffner', K385
Schoenberg, Chamber Symphony No. 1 in E major, Op. 9
Mozart, Symphony No. 41 in C, 'Jupiter', K551

Philharmonie, 7 April 2017

The Staatsoper Berlin’s 2017 Festtage got underway with a visit of the Vienna Philharmonic and a characteristic Daniel Barenboim programme. The two Viennese schools – First and Second – were juxtaposed, unapologetically big-boned Mozart symphonies either side Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony no. 1.

Mozart is too rarely the focus of a modern-instrument symphony orchestra concert in a hall the size of the Philharmonie, and Barenboim showed persuasively that this music can, and arguably more often should, benefit from such an approach. At least, this was certainly the case in a terrific account of the "Haffner" Symphony…

[read the full review at Bachtrack]

Monday, 13 March 2017

Staatsoper Berlin: Ariadne auf Naxos

11 March 2017

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Hans Neuenfels’s Berliner Staatsoper staging of Ariadne auf Naxos is its apparent pervading sense of gentleness, if that’s the word, even at times a sort of neutrality.

Katrin Lea Tag’s set is essentially a white half-box, with moveable walls and backdrops (one in the Prologue features a cash dispenser). The main feeling is one of pared-down abstraction: there’s no sense of being backstage in the Prologue, not much feeling of being on stage in the Opera, where Ariadne weeps on a chaise longue surrounded by the antique rubble that tumbles down from the back at the end of the Prologue.

Around her, Harlekin and his troupe try to rebuild something from this. Ariadne’s mistaking Bacchus for Hermes is spelled out when the latter arrives in the form of a golden statuette as part of a strange, macabre procession. Bacchus himself stage-manages his appearance, with Najade, Dryade and Echo becoming his assistants.

The three attendants begin the act like the Norns at the start of Götterdämmerung, the Composer—who reappears at various points—having furnished them with a ball of three threads, which they then use to lift Ariadne, puppet-like, from her torpor. During her main arias, meanwhile, an actual puppet artist, dressed in black with ‘Das Schicksal’ on his back, weaves around her with a bare head on each hand—Ariadne and Theseus, one might assume.

Ariadne has one of those Strauss-Hofmannsthal happy endings that is only half-convincing: Hofmannsthal talks of transformation, but Strauss doesn’t allow his music in this work, or even less in Die Frau ohne Schatten (which follows both in their collaboration and in the Staatsoper’s 16/17 Spielplan), to jettison the pain of what’s come before. Happiness, the implication seems to be, is contingent on living with and gradually processing that memory.

Here, though, Neuenfels denies us that: Bacchus does his best to persuade Ariadne, his performance, it struck me, slightly reminiscent of the unsuccessful mating dance of some rainforest bird. And he’s about as troubled by his failure, too: he has given up by the close of the duet, which he sings with generalised anguish from the orchestral pit. Ariadne, in the end, prefers to die. As the synopsis in the programme puts it: ‘She thus fulfils the words of the Composer: “She wants to die! No, she really does die.”’

Out goes the lesson that, according to Hofmannsthal, Ariadne should learn from from Zerbinetta, which maybe explains why their opposing attitudes are presented in bald opposition during the latter’s aria, where each inscribes the essence of their Liebesphilosophie in chalk on one side of the stage.

It's a bold ending, and one that's perhaps also surprising given that Zerbinetta is presented with rare sympathy, smartly-dressed, grown-up and unusually sensible, and sung with real spark here, if not quite an ideal level of pinpoint coloratura, by Elena Sanch-Pereg. 

You’d maybe expect the production to undercut her message, but she’s allowed to get it across clearly; and rarely have I seen the burgeoning feelings between her and the Composer—the ardent, youthful and soprano-ish Katharina Kammerloher—in the Prologue presented more touchingly, without any hint of caricature. 

There was something especially touching, too, about Kammerloher’s interactions with the excellent Music Master of Arttu Kataja, whose own youth suggested perhaps more sympathy than usual with his charge’s dilemma.

In fact, the comedy was underplayed throughout, not least by the strange Haushofmeister(in) of Elisabeth Trissenaar, about as Viennese as the staging, and hardly less abstract in her deliberately pulled-about delivery—as a character, she seemed situated somewhere between circus ringmaster and cabaret MC. The excellent quartet around Gyula Orendt’s touching Harlekin kept clowning refreshingly to a minimum, a strap-on dildo each at the end of the Prologue notwithstanding.

The streamlined staging felt matched to an extent by the conducting of Eun Sun Kim, which was a little business-like on occasion, despite a great deal of flexibility in the Prologue. She didn’t dig deep as some in the Opera itself, either, and perhaps the tragedy of Neuenfels’s vision might have gained greater depth if she had done so.

Such an effect, though, was undoubtedly hampered by Anna Samuil’s bold-as-brass Ariadne. Unstinting on the vibrato and the convoluted German, she sang the notes but offered little sense of trying to explore this most complex of roles, ploughing through her arias and failing to offer something to match the delicately prepared cushion of sound Kim proffered her her ‘Gibt es kein hinüber’ (below, by way of totally unfair comparison, is Gundula Janowitz showing how this can be done, in the live recording I picked as top choice when I did a Gramophone Collection on the opera a couple of years ago) 

The production rather underlines the bluster to which any Bacchus is prone, but Roberto Saccà nonetheless sang with admirable security and emotional grandeur—or was it here, in Neuenfels's eyes, mere grandstanding?

Finally, a mention of the playing of the Staatskapelle, a marvel of eloquence and delicacy. And what a pleasure to here this score in a theatre the size of the Schillertheater, a couple of hundred seats smaller than the Stuttgart Staatstheater for which the work was originally conceived—in its first 1912 version at least. 

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Semperoper Dresden: Otello

26 February

Only a couple of days after this performance, the new season at the Semperoper was announced, in which Christian Thielemann is to conduct not a single of the new productions. He’s busy with plenty of Wagner (there are a couple of Rings), as well as a starrily cast Tosca, but it might seem surprising, after this Otello and a Simon Boccanegra a few seasons back, that he wouldn’t have bagsied next season’s new Forza del Destino for himself (that goes to Mark Wigglesworth).

Sofia Pintzu ('Ein Engel') in the Semperoper's Otello (Photo © Forster)

That said, this performance suggested that Forza might not be quite up his Straße these days. While he brought an appropriate dark grandeur to Boccanegra and certain moments in Otello, the more visceral nature of the latter’s drama seemed on occasion to elude him.

The playing of the Staatskapelle gloried in the band’s characteristic cushioned sheen, and Thielemann can elicit some thrilling edge and bite from them too—and certain key orchestral outbursts were stunning in their power. But it seemed like the conductor also felt the need to place several episodes of moment by moment drama within longer quasi-symphonic arcs: the results were always interesting, but not always compelling.

Perhaps things would have worked more powerfully had the production, making its Dresden debut after being unveiled at last year’s Salzburg Easter Festival, been more interested in offering us red-blooded drama too. 

Instead, as tends to be the case in my experience of their work, the team of Vincent Boussard (director), Vincent Lemaire (sets) and Christian Lacroix (costumes) offered something stylish but slightly anonymous: period-with-a-modern-twist costumes, shiny dark floor, minimal boxy sets and a recurring motif of wafting material (a reference both to the sail mentioned in the opening chorus and Desdemona’s handkerchief) both on stage and in the atmospheric if slightly screensaverish video projections.  

We also had the dubious bonus of an ‘angel’ (played by the actress Sofia Pintzou), who stalked the stage throughout much of the evening, and whose black wings started to billow smoke and flame up at the big orchestral outburst ahead of ‘Dio! mi potevi’. 

Dorothea Röschmann (Desdemona), Sofia Pintzu (Angel) and Stephen Gould (Otello) (Photo © Forster)

This allowed for some impressive images, but also seemed symptomatic of a staging that felt weirdly reluctant to get its hands dirty with this most powerful and direct of dramas, in which we had little sense of where we were, who the main characters were, why they were acting in the way they did and, ultimately, why we should really care about them.

Stephen Gould (Otello), Dorothea Röschmann (Desdemona)
& Andrzej Dobber (Iago) (Photo © Forster)
This effect was somewhat exacerbated by a cast that never really coalesced. The casting of Stephen Gould as Otello seemed to take us back to an earlier age where Tristans and Siegfrieds were regulars in this role, but also demonstrated that its challenges are very different from those of Wagner. Gould was stretched at the extremes and his tone was exposed as short on sap and the necessary trumpety squillo. He has the stamina, though, and saved the best till last in a moving death scene. 

Andrzej Dobber was a perfectly decent Iago, but the combination of his reluctance to really use the words and a smooth, rather benign timbre held the characterization back. 

Dorothea Röschmann was an unusually forthright, strong-willed Desdemona right from the start, and certainly no mere shining paragon of female virtue and purity (somewhat in contravention of Verdi’s own conception of the role). There a couple of rough-edged moments, but her Willow Song and Ave Maria were a highlight—it’s just a shame that the characterization was left isolated within the production as a whole.

The singers making up the rest of the cast, including Antonio Poli’s mellifluous and pleasingly bright-toned Cassio, Georg Zeppenfeld’s authoritative Lodovico and Christa Mayer’s moving Emilia, were excellent. There was an awful lot of quality on show, then, but this was an Otello that never really caught fire. 

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Staatsoper Hamburg: Lulu

24 February

I’d gone to Hamburg’s new Lulu vaguely forewarned: this new production from Christoph Marthaler was going to offer a novel solution to the problem of the opera’s unfinished status (if there is indeed still a problem, over 35 years since Friedrich Cerha’s completion was first performed).

Barbara Hannigan as Lulu and Veronika Eberle as 'Eine Violistin' (Photo © Monika Rittershaus)

I’d steered clear of reviews, but had heard the evening was to conclude with the Violin Concerto. When the programme made no obvious mention of the fact, though, I wondered if that was indeed going to be the case: I embarked upon the evening in a state of mild confusion.

(Click to enlarge)
What an essay in the programme did explain was that, in this edition (credited to Marthaler, Kent Nagano, assistant conductor Johannes Harniet and dramaturg Malte Ubenauf), the music for Act 3 would be presented to reflect the state of Berg’s unfinished particell score, performed by two pianos (one on stage, the other in the pit) and violin (on stage). The music Berg did actually orchestrate was not included.  

It all served to make an already elusive work even more elusive. It also seemed to be of a piece with Marthaler’s staging, in which all characters themselves seemed to be presented in incomplete form, sketched out in somewhat abstracted terms, delivering lines with studied lack of emotion, moving with stilted, stylised awkwardness.

In a sequence right at the very start, the Theatre Director’s assistant, Auguste, brings each character on, placing them in position. A microphone on a boom is present throughout, while Acts 1 and 3 seem to take place backstage. The natural state of the production, to which it felt as though it was continually trying to return, seemed to be precisely the provisional incompleteness that was communicated in that final act, both musically and in terms of the staging and drama.

The whole show has a undeniable seriousness—which by no means excludes some surreal humorous touches—and an austere, cool beauty to it. Marthaler is unstinting in creating his own theatrical universe of post-war beiges, painstakingly and stylishly realised through Anna Viebrock’s designs and Martin Gebrecht’s precise lighting, which an excellent cast inhabit with total commitment.

Act 1 of Christoph Marthaler's Lulu in Hamburg (Photo © Monika Rittershaus)

There’s a sense with Barbara Hannigan’s Lulu that much of what she does here—some repeated backward flips off a table, long stretches of jerky gesturing—she’s been asked to do largely just because she can; and the voice remains more adept at ethereal flights into the stratosphere than projecting mid-range intensity.

She’s still a compelling stage presence, though, and an actress of fearless commitment: her physical submission to Ivan Ludlow’s hunky Athlete, allowing herself to serve as some sort of numb ersatz dumbbell, was both unsettling and strangely impressive. Her totemic, symbolic status in the production was further underlined by the presence of four further female figures, named in the cast list as characters from Wedekind’s Pandora’s Box.

Anne Sofie von Otter (Countess Geschwitz), Marta Świderska (Gymnasiast), Barbara Hannigan (Lulu), Ivan Ludlow (Athlete), Jochen Schmeckenbecher (Doktor Schön), Matthias Klink (Matthias Klink) (Photo © Monika Rittershaus)

Anne Sofie von Otter was a buttoned-up, glamorous and moving Countess Geschwitz, singing with considerable heft as well as the trademark class. Jochen Schmeckenbecker was a gruff, forceful Alwa, and Matthias Klink made a strong impression as Alwa. In the other roles, Sergei Leiferkus’s coal-toned, darkly comic Schigolch deserves special mention.   

Nagano conducted with a clear-sighted sense of purpose. He’s not one to imbue a score such as this with much warmth, however, and his interpretation, like Marthalar’s staging, stayed relatively cool. The conductor seemed most fired up when inspired by Veronika Eberle’s terrific playing—as soloist in the concerto, and the vaguely-defined ‘Eine Violinistin’ in the disintegrating drama—in the final 25 minutes.

And the edition? It seemed like an interesting experiment, but one that stretches a long evening out to a length, with two intervals, of over four hours. To have the drama unravel just at the stage when one’s used to have it tighten and intensify, to leave just a resurrected Lulu and her four companions, gesturing forlornly as the Violin Concerto came to its rapt conclusion, was memorable. It was intriguing, too, to have a thematic link drawn between that work, written in memory of the ‘angel’ Manon Gropius, and the protagonist of the opera whose composition was broken off for Berg to complete his commission.  

I wouldn't say it was a satisfying solution to the problem that Nagano and Marthaler had created for themselves. But I doubt, to be honest, that that was what they were setting out to achieve. 

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Komische Oper: Petrushka / L'Enfant et les sortilèges

19 February 2017

I should admit that I went to the Komische Oper’s new Stravinsky-Ravel double bill in the strange position of not having seen 1927’s earlier widely-travelled Zauberflöte—entirely my own fault, since it’s been around this season already, plus has a couple of further performances scheduled.

In a programme interview, though, Suzanne Andrade, one of the group’s masterminds, says that the Mozart took them back to an earlier stage in their development, while this new staging of Petrushka and L’Enfant et les sortilèges is rather closer to what they’ve been doing more recently.

Petrushka and Ptitschka in 1927's Stravinsky-Ravel double bill at the Komische Oper (photo © Iko Freese/drama-berlin.de)

Among that recent work was The Golem, which I did see at the Old Vic in London. Certainly much of what we saw here was reminiscent of that show: the wit, the imagination, the sheer theatrical spark and fizz, animations with a sort of Heath Robinson/Terry Gilliam sense of the absurd mixing cleverly with real-life action.

The big splash of colour and character conjured up at the start of Stravinsky’s Shrovetide Fair, with a heavy dash of Russian constructivism, was dazzling. The magician was represented throughout by large animated hand, prodding and poking the action as required.

Petrushka, played with puckish mischief by Tiago Alexandre Fonseca, becomes a clown. The original ballerina becomes the acrobat Ptitschka (Pauliina Räsänen), while the Moor is recast as Patap the muscleman (Slava Volkov).

It’s less a ballet per se, then, than a mixture of mime and acrobatics, engaging and entertaining, but also ultimately, I felt, a little inexpressive and, ironically for this work, lacking in humanity. Petrushka’s heartbreak and death counting for little among the visual razzle dazzle.

The Ravel struck me as a great deal more successful, not least because there we still had the expressive potential of the singing more or less intact, even if a number of the roles were delivered invisibly from offstage. Indeed, the Child begins life in animated form before, as the magic kicks off, appearing in the form of both the mezzo Ruzan Mantashyan (on mellifluous, stylish form) and a double, Martina Borroni: both are dressed in identical padded-out cub-scout uniform and swap over at various stages to keep the action fluid and the eye alert.

The other people, creatures and objects appeared variously as singers on stage, animations with voices heard off-stage or, as in the case of the brilliantly shrill Ivan Turšić’s M. Mathe, a mixture of both. The animation, meanwhile, allowed for the surreal action of Colette’s libretto—so brilliantly matched by Ravel’s witty and urbane score—to unravel with a trippy and enchanting unpredictability and humour.

A certain ambiguity, especially regarding the role of the Mother (the classy Ezgi Kutlu), was a result of the group's professed aim to underline the closeness between Petrushka's nearly omnipresent father figure (the Magician) and L'Enfant's nearly omni-absent Mother. This was compounded by a slight ambivalence when it came to whether or not the Child in the end really learnt from his escapades. 

The Child encounters M. Mathe in L'Enfant et les sortilèges (photo © Iko Freese/drama-berlin.de)

The extended cast, in a true virtuoso ensemble effort, was outstanding, and the Komische Oper’s orchestra played both scores with lucid flexibility for Markus Poschner. I’ll have to catch the Zauberflöte, but also am intrigued as to how 1927 might develop their aesthetic further to bring yet more to whatever operatic work they tackle next, and whether they can create something more substantial beneath the always glittering surface of their theatre. 

The Golem had had me wondering about what lay beneath, as here did PetrushkaL'Enfant, though, provided something more rewarding and spiritually nourishing. 

Monday, 20 February 2017

Landestheater Coburg: Fidelio & The Cunning Little Vixen

Last week I took a little trip to Franconia. I was there to see the opera company of Landestheater Coburg perform two of its new productions under its dynamic music director Roland Kluttig. Having made his name primarily as a new music specialist, Kluttig was appointed Generalmusikdirektor at the start of the 2010/11 and is clearly bringing a new sense of ambition to this company across the repertoire.

Interior of the Markgrafentheater in Erlangen
First stop was Erlangen, where the Coburg company was performing their Fidelio at the town’s beautiful Markgrafentheater, the oldest functioning Baroque theatre in South Germany, Wikipedia tells me, but one that in the 300 years since it was built has undergone quite a few facelifts. The exterior is modern, and inside the boxes have been knocked through (if that's the term) and a fair amount of detailing has been smoothed over.

Still it’s a lovely little place, as is the town itself, centred around an elegant 18th-century university complex and a famous botanical garden (maintained by the university, but inevitably looking a little triste in mid February). 

The theatre produces its own plays, in the main building and couple of other venues in the town, as well as hosting concerts and Gastspiele from the Coburg—a 50-mile whizz up the autobahn. For me on this occasion it was Fidelio, in a production (new in the autumn) by Rudolf Frey, whose work in the UK has included a not-much-loved Maria Stuarda at Welsh National Opera in 2013.

There were a few textual novelties: the apparently ever-problematic dialogue was replaced by texts from Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte; and, unusually, we had Leonore III as the overture (performed with real vigour by Kluttig and the orchestra in the theatre’s tiny pit), chosen possibly in part so that its greater length could provide more scope for the dumb-show Prologue it accompanied.

This Prologue, as I read only afterwards (having assumed no need to revisit the opera’s synopsis), set up the premise for the production. Florestan is a journalist who has discovered some nasty secrets about his old friend, the prison governor Pizarro. Leonore passes the material to the Pizarro unawares, and he then locks Florestan up. Time passes, until Leonore, denied the opportunity to visit him in prison, discovers that Florestan has died. She ‘sinks down in shock and mourning,’ we are told, and ‘before her inner eye unravels the following story: …’.

Landestheater Coburg
I’m reviewing the production in opera so will essentially leave it there, only to add that it seems that Fidelio remains as tricky as ever, and this framing device, though freeing the production from certain burdens and responsibilities, also seemed to relieve it from the necessity to make a great deal of sense on its own terms—or, at least, to feel responsible for conveying that sense to those watching. I was left scratching my head much of the time.

The next evening’s Vixen (directed by Alexandra Szemerèdy and Magdolna Parditka, and sung in German) was a great deal more persuasive. It was a fiercely uncompromising reinterpretation that imagined the work as a dark, entirely unredemptive tale of human trafficking and prostitution, and which ends in multiple deaths at the hands of the Game Keeper. It paid little attention to Janáček’s score, admittedly, but had at least an impressive conviction and internal coherence. (Again, I'll be reviewing this in operaso will leave it there.)

Alexandra Szemerédy and Magdolna Parditka's Cunning Little Vixen at Landestheater Coburg
(Photo © Henning Rosenbusch)
Sitting across the Theaterplatz from the imposing and beautifully preserved Schloss Ehrenburg (whose 1810s façade was designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel), the Coburg theatre is delightful. A 550-seat gem of sober classical lines, it opened in 1840 and built up a reputation as a Wagner theatre throughout the second half of the 19th-century; its resident set-painter Max Brückner was recruited, along with his brother Gotthold, by Wagner for Bayreuth, not far down the road.

Landestheater Coburg
Recently it has started to re-establish its Wagner repertory, having had something of a hit, it seems, with its 2014 Lohengrin—Kluttig told me that Wagner outsells everything in the theatre, opera, plays or musicals; he is constantly getting stopped in the street, on the other hand, by people asking for more Brahms in the concert series he runs with the theatre’s orchestra. 

After other successes with Der Rosenkavalier and, particularly, Pelléas et Mélisande, the decision was made to stage Parsifal too, which will therefore be seen there in April.

Later this season the theatre also stages a double bill of the first German performance of Toshio Hosokawa’s The Raven and Poulenc’s La Voix humaine. That, the productions I saw, and the fact that the beginning of the season they revived another double bill, this time of Dido and Aeneas and Riders to the Sea, give an idea of quite how adventurous this operatic arm of the theatre is.

I hope to return soon, not least to see the wonderful town in slightly less wintry conditions.