Sunday, 21 May 2017

Andsnes; Berliner Philharmonike/Orozco-Estrada: Strauss, Rachmaninov, Shostakovich

Strauss R., Macbeth, Op.23
Rachmaninov, Piano Concerto no. 4 in G minor, Op.40
Shostakovich, Symphony no. 5 in D minor, Op.47

Philharmonie, 18 May 2017

This concert, as the programme told us, featured composers who all were hits, one way or another, with their public – and, I suppose, other subsequent publics. But Strauss tone poems and Rachmaninov piano concertos hardly come less popular than those we heard here.

Strauss’s Macbeth (composed 1886-88) seems at least to be witnessing a small upsurge in its fortunes, and this concert’s conductor, the Colombian Andrés Orozco-Estrada, has recently recorded it with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, of which he has been chief conductor since 2014...

[Read the full review at Bachtrack]

Monday, 15 May 2017

Deutsche Oper Berlin: Andrea Chénier

13 May 2017


I should admit I’ve always had a bit of a troubled relationship with Andrea Chénier, not least because, when I’ve seen it in the theatre, it’s never really caught fire.

I should also admit that that’s only been on a couple of occasions. The first time was in Vienna, in a Wiederaufnahme of Otto Schenk’s lavish production 15 years ago. It starred Violeta Urmana, Johan Botha and Lado Ataneli (with Elīna Garanča, I notice now, as Bersi). There was some impressive singing, obviously, but it left me a little cold.

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I felt similarly about David McVicar’s also-lavish production at Covent Garden (admittedly seen live only at the dress rehearsal, but later also watched on Blu-ray). In Vienna Urmana and Botha didn’t really set the world alight dramatically, I remember, or even in terms of fiery singing. In London, Jonas Kaufmann’s poet struck me as a touch too subtle and sophisticated, Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Maddalena heartfelt rather than incandescent.   

It was a joy, then, to see the Deutsche Oper’s staging, with a cast that threw themselves thrillingly into roles surely designed primarily as vehicles for exactly that. Chénier and Madelenna, at least, should sound indeed as though they know they’re for the chop, should sing their hearts out as though it might be for the last time. And that’s exactly what it felt like here.

Marcelo Alvarez’s voice still carries the traces of its more lyrical origins—it’s pleasingly soft-grained rather than excitingly steel-bladed—but he sang Chénier throughout with unstinting generosity and ardour, a slight patch of uncertainty at the start of the final duet notwithstanding. His acting was rudimentary, admittedly, hands and arms moving about in a series of stock tenorial gestures, but it hardly mattered. This was big-hearted singing served up in big, hearty dollops.

Maria José Siri’s Maddalena was nicely acted, and she conveyed particularly well the transition from the mischievous girl of the first act (especially so in this mischievous 1994 production from John Dew) to tragic figure. She channelled a good deal of grandezza and sang in a voice of unmistakably Italian colour: a slight edge to the warm sound, a care for words and a broadness of phrasing that was only slightly compromised by some shortness of breath. She rose brilliantly to a moving, noble ‘La mamma morta’ and matched Alvarez in the unrepentant fireworks of ‘Vicino a te’.

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George Gagnidze was a powerful Gérard, the voice impressively focused and forward, the characterisation broad-brush but persuasive. The were excellent performances in the smaller roles from a raft of Deutsche Oper singers: a strongly sung Bersi from Judit Kutasi, a fantastic cameo from Ronnita Miller as Madelon, a handsome sounding Mathieu from Samuel Dale Johnson.

Once we got past a couple of dodgy moments early on from the orchestra under Paolo Carignani (a late stand-in), the players and conductor hit their stride with big sweeping phrases and a grand, thrilling sound. Musically this was performance was straightforwardly but enormously pleasurable.

Dew’s production stands up well, too, striking the same sort of balance that I described in Götz Friedrich’s slightly later Traviata: a smart, interesting show but a sensible, eminently revivable one too. And Dew’s Chénier, though never undermining the piece, also gives the impression of not ever taking it too seriously.

Act One, therefore, is a riot of grotesquely exaggerated froufrou (José Manuel Vázquez clearly had a lot of fun designing the costumes), its action taking place on a platform beneath which the underclass grumble away threateningly. The act’s conclusion, which sees one side of the platform rise up and these preposterous aristos slide helplessly off it, is a brilliant touch. The same set remains, in various configurations, and there’s another neat touch at the very end, where panels come across and down gradually to enclose Chénier and Maddalena in the shape of the blade that’s shortly to do its worst. A witty end to a rousingly enjoyable evening. 

Gautier Capuçon; Berliner Phllharmoniker/Bychkov: Shostakovich, Strauss

Shostakovich, Cello Concerto no. 1 in E flat major, Op. 107
Strauss, Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40

Philharmonie, 12 May 2017

For this programme with the Berliner Philharmoniker, Semyon Bychkov chose two works in E flat major, the traditional key of heroism. But it’s hardly possible to imagine two more different treatments of that favourite musical mode.

Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto is often described as presenting an anti-hero, a fruitless struggle against insuperable forces in which we nonetheless see glimpses of defiant humanity. The grandiloquent surface of Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben, by contrast, suggests an image of conceited triumphalism...

[Read the full review at Bachtrack]


Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Deutsche Oper Berlin: Der fliegende Holländer

7 May 2017 — Premiere

Berlin already has a Wagner opera staged by a choreographer in the guise of Sascha Waltz’s Tannhäuser at the Staatsoper. With that work, at least, one can see the justification, even if of course there’s a great deal more to Tannhäuser than the Venusberg—which happens, indeed, to be one of the opera’s primary messages.

Samuel Youn as the Dutchman in the Deutsche Oper's new Fliegende Holländer (photo © Thomas Jauk)

For a choreographer to stage Der fliegende Holländer certainly seems less obvious. But any fears of a riot of dancing sailors and seamstresses were entirely unfounded; concerns that the stage would be flooded with additional dancers, too, were unjustified. This was that rare beast: an opera staging by a choreographer that didn’t feature much dancing at all—or any dancers.

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This is all perhaps to admit my ignorance regarding Christian Spuck (resident choreographer at the Stuttgart Ballet), who already has a handful of opera productions behind him. And this Dutchman indeed felt like the work of an experienced operatic hand: dark, monochrome (with one exception), concentrated and, on the whole, theatrically very effective.

But my heart did sink early on. During the overture a figure sat on the stage, hugging himself in desperation beside a model ship. A misty cloud hung above him, from which rain tinkled very audibly into a shallow rectangular pool  at the back of the stage. Such effects don’t always suggest a director with much interest in the music.

But, though this was distracting in the quieter passages of the overture, it was turned off most of the time during the opera itself, and proved, along with virtually everyone having to make their entrance through the pool, important in helping cement the production’s heavy, wearily dank aesthetic.

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It soon became clear, too, that the crouching figure was Erik, onstage all evening and acted fearlessly by Thomas Blondelle. We were invited to view the whole action from his perspective, events on stage intermittently going into freeze frame as he silently expressed his exasperation or ran from one position to another. 

The only character dressed in colour (in the dull green jacket of the hunter), Erik here stood out as perhaps the one sane—and human—person on stage. And his remarkable dream narration, beloved of early psychoanalysts, here became the whole work’s central pivot: it does indeed sit at the centre of the piece, in the middle of the second of three acts, performed here in their elided, proto-music drama form.

It’s a striking idea, and was realised with striking effectiveness by Spuck, who kept the rest of the production darkly focussed around him. In addition to its paddling pool, Rufus Didwiszus’s single set consisted of black walls with two large doors barely visible at the back. A large mass, later revealed as a phalanx of sewing machines, was hidden under a dust sheet and was ‘sailed’ around the stage by Daland and the Steuermann during Act 1’s final chorus.

Ingela Brimberg as Senta (photo © Thomas Jauk)

This was unveiled as we moved into Act 2, when an off-white tent-like enclosure with a few daubings to suggest an interior was hoisted above it. At the start of Act 3 that was brought down and replaced with a grand black awning. It was an economical, if relentlessly monochrome, way of dealing with the scene changes quickly—but an effective one.

Daland’s crew were dressed in dark greys and blacks, and came traipsing on into the gloom with torches at the start. The Dutchman and his crew arrived through the mist in a black hooded cloaks, and Samuel Youn’s performance was one of intense, concentrated angst and desperation, emphasised by a narrow-bore bass baritone that only ever seems to function at a high level of intensity.

Tobias Kehrer’s Daland was in many ways outstanding, the voice wonderfully rich and rounded in its middle and lower registers. But both he and Youn struggled at the top of their ranges, as indeed did Blondelle in the tricky Helden-bel canto of Erik.

Ingela Brimberg’s Senta, by contrast, only improved as the evening went on, her soprano, initially a little spread in its timbre, achieving terrific focus and thrilling volume by the end, which was pessimistically, unpredictably but not entirely satisfactorily staged in the absence of any ships to sail off in or cliffs to jump off. Ronita Miller dusted off her gloriously fruity mezzo as Mary, and Matthew Newlin was an eloquent, appealing Steuermann.

Ingela Brimberg (Senta) and Thomas Blondelle (Erik) (photo © Thomas Jauk)

The expanded chorus was outstanding, and this is perhaps where Spuck’s direction was at its most impressive, bringing a choreographic unity to their movements, often suggestive of them being blown one way or another by the wind, or tossed from side to side by the waves—the Spinning Chorus and mocking of Senta were directed with a sharp wit, while the chorus’s reactions to the Ballad helped make Brimberg’s fine performance of it all the more gripping.

Keeping the whole thing afloat, though, was the grandly surging sea of sound provided by the Deutsche Oper orchestra under Donald Runnicles. The playing was bracing and rich in tone, the brass burnished, the strings incisive and the wind plangent. Runnicles whipped up the storms thrillingly, as well as bringing bounce and lightness to to the more Weberian passages. Most impressively of all, he managed to tie the whole thing together with an inexorable sense of forward movement, justifying his decision to perform it without any breaks. 

Not perhaps an evening, in Spuck’s dark production, to offer much consolation or redemption, but this was an exciting, concentrated couple of hours of music drama.  

Berliner Philharmoniker/Rattle: Bruckner, Holt

Holt, Surcos
Bruckner, Symphony No. 8 in C minor

Philharmonie, 5 May 2017

Simon Rattle has often opted to preface his performances of the great edifices of the Austro-German symphonic repertoire with much shorter works. I remember him bringing the Berlin Philharmonic to London’s Royal Festival Hall six years ago and programming miniatures by Brahms and Wolf ahead of Mahler’s Third. On this occasion, though, it was new music that preceded Bruckner’s Eighth: the latest in the ‘Tapas-series’ Rattle and the orchestra have commissioned, none longer than six minutes, to spread around various programmes as unintimidating tasters of the contemporary scene.

[Read the full review at Bachtrack]

Monday, 8 May 2017

Staatsoper Hamburg: Die Frau ohne Schatten; Mahler 8

Die Frau ohne Schatten, 29 April 2017, Staatsoper Hamburg
Mahler Symphony No. 8, 28 April 2017, Elbphilharmonie


The sources and influences that helped shaped Die Frau ohne Schatten are countless, creating a complex web that criss-crosses between cultures, centuries and genres. In his writings, though, Hugo von Hofmannsthal hinted a clutch of works by Goethe that were of fundamental importance to his ambitions as a librettist generally and his plan for Die Frau specifically. One of the most important of these was Goethe’s Faust II, which in an essay from 1913-14 he described as ‘die Oper aller Opern’the opera of all operas.
The links between Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s most ambitious opera and Mahler’s grandest symphony, whose second part sets the final stages of Faust II, would therefore seem well worth exploring. Indeed, in a book chapter from 1992, the Germanist Harry E. Seelig noted the common ground in the apotheoses of Mahler’s 8th and Die Frau ohne Schatten, pointing also to the similarity between the winds’ melody at the start of the Mahler’s second half and the melody of Barak’s ‘Mir anvertraut’.
On paper, then, the juxtaposition of both works in Hamburg felt like an important opportunity. My hopes were raised by the fact that among the credits for the performances of the Mahler in the Elbphilharmonie were those for a Dramaturg (Johannes Blum) and ‘Lichtskulptur’ (by rosalie, perhaps best known in operatic circles for providing designs for Alfred Kirchner’s 1994 Bayreuth Ring). To what extent would the Mahler be ‘staged’, and would any attempt, either in the performances of the symphony or in Andreas Kriegenburg’s new staging of the opera, be made to explore any of the possible parallels between the works?
The answers: not at all, really, and no. For the Mahler, the dramaturg credit had seemed to have been dropped from the programme by the time of the performance itself. We just had seven vast rectangular light panels hung from the hall’s ceiling above the stage, on which appeared slowly rippling patterns shifting between blues, purples and greens—essentially the standard screensaver, media player visualiser sort of stuff, presumably realised at considerable cost. Otherwise, despite the lighting being very low (chorus and orchestra relied on lamps to see their scores), this was pretty much a straightforward concert performance.
rosalie's 'Lichtskulptur' for Mahler 8 at the Elbphilharmonie (photo © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg)
And straightforward not least in the conducting of Eliahu Inbal, stepping in for the indisposed Kent Nagano. The veteran maestro, now over 80, presided over an efficient, sensible account of the score. He marshalled his forces (some way off the 1,000 of legend, but, with an orchestra of some 150 musicians, still an impressive complement) with considerable skill. I detected an understandable pragmatism in his approach, too, and a sense of what was achievable in terms of interpretation in the circumstances: Inbal was announced as Nagano’s replacement only three days before the first of three performances (I was at the second).
He certainly didn’t stint on the big moments, but this was nevertheless a reading characterised by swift tempos, with little feeling of trying to explore the depth of feeling that the two texts—the Catholic ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’ of the first half and the pantheistic allegory of the Goethe in the second—inspired in the composer.
In some ways this felt as much a test for the acoustics of Hamburg’s new hall (and it was the first time I’d been in it) as anything else. As such, it passed impressively. The orchestral sound was silky, rich and transparent, the choruses (the Hamburger Alsterspatzen, the Latvian State Chorus and the Chorus of the Hamburger Staatsoper) direct and rousing, their diction coming across well. Even the soloists, marooned between orchestra and chorus, weren’t as drowned out as one might have expected.
The outstanding contributions came, in particular, from Daniela Sindram’s rich, sensuous (Mulier samaritana); Heather Engebretson soaring as Mater gloriosa (her ‘Komm! Hebe dich zu höheren sphären’ delivered from high up in the hall); Kartal Karagedik, a Hamburg ensemble member, as an ardent Pater ecstaticus; and Wilhelm Schwinghammer impressive as Pater profundis. Burkhard Fritz, alas, seemed to be having a bad day in the demanding tenor music.
Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Staatsoper Hamburg (photo © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg)
There were some signs of tiredness in the Staatsorchester, and one imagines a good number players had been in the pit tackling Die Frau ohne Schatten less than 24 hours earlier (this was a Mahler matinée). There again Nagano had been forced to withdraw, replaced at a late stage by Axel Kober, who conducted a reading – presumably as much dictated by Nagano’s work throughout the preparation period as by Kober’s own interpretation—that was similarly swift and efficient, but none the worse for it.
Certainly there was plenty of care and attention lavished on the score. The voicing of Act 1’s final chords struck me as especially well balanced—a small point, no doubt, but one that seemed to underline the difference in care between Nagano/Kober here and Zubin Mehta’s disappointing conducting of the piece at the Staatsoper in Berlin. Nor did the overall swiftness preclude generous phrasing or warmth, and rarely did the music feel pushed. This wasn’t a reading to explore the score’s extremes, but it was one that emphasised its coherence and dramatic effectiveness.
The performances of Claus Guth’s staging in Berlin were still fresh in the mind, and Kriegenburg’s Hamburg production was interesting in being built on a contrasting, if somewhat counterintuitive premise: whereas Guth had concentrated on the action as existing in the Kaiserin’s mind, Kriegenburg chose to emphasise the Färberin’s development. (As an aside I feel duty bound to quote a letter to Strauss from Hofmannsthal from July 1914, which certainly suggests, for what it’s worth, that the librettist wouldn’t have approved. ‘I would like to draw all your attention to the character of the Empress,’ he wrote. ‘She has not a great deal to say and yet is actually the most important figure in the opera. You should never forget that. It is all about becoming human; she—not the other one—is the woman without a shadow.’)
Lise Lindstrom (Färberin) and Andrzej Dobber (Barak) (photo © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg)
Here the Färberin  had the stage to herself at before the music began, mumbling about wanting to be taken away, and concluding with the Kaiserin’s own words—‘Ich will nicht’—before the orchestra thundered in with the Keikobad motif. She, or a body double, mirrored the Empress a great deal throughout, and she appeared in both forms for ‘Mir anvertraut’, one singing separate from Barak, the other, apparently unwell, being attended to by him.
It was a general feature of the production, in fact, to have many different characters witnessing scenes they’re not involved in. It’s not a bad idea per se, but a recipe for some very cluttered stage pictures: the comings and goings of different characters, doubles and extras in the Emperor’s and Empress’s scenes in Act 2 were a case in point.
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This too seemed to reflect Kriegenburg’s lack of concern for the clear delineations laid out in the libretto. Harald B. Thor’s set consisted of two two levelsthe upper sphere antiseptic and featuring a series of white angled poles, the lower dark and dingy and clutteredwhich were raised up and down. This allowed for fluid movement between spheres, but surely too much of it: the Empress and Nurse not only made their way down to the human world, via the central spiral staircase, but Barak and his Wife were able to wander up to the spiritual realm whenever they fancied. 
Within this context, the members of each realm were nevertheless well differentiated, those from the spiritual realm in wafty white, often accompanied by a similarly dressed group of extras, against whom the Gabriele Rossmanith’s Falke, in bright red, stood out in sharp relief. I also liked the way the Emperor’s stony trajectory was conveyed by his increasing infirmity. The human world featured grubby costumes, with the occasional appearance of a posse of masked businessmen.
The Konzept had some major casualties, however, not the least of which was the Empress, whose own trial and triumph were reduced to a sideshow. This sense was further emphasised by the fact that there was no apparent attempt to deal with or portray the presence of Keikobad, whatever or whoever one might view him as being. This also meant a more general lack of concern for any possible deeper meanings in the work, which reached its apogee in a disappointingly glib and trite take on the finale, staged—without irony, apparently—as a straightforward happy ending. Those businessmen reappeared, then unmasked and partly disrobed to reveal themselves as colourfully dressed children who proceeded to play ball games and pat-a-cake. The Emperor and Empress played along  before joining the Barak and his wife on a pair of park benches at the front for the quartet.
The finale of Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Staatsoper Hamburg (photo © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg)
Despite my misgivings about the production, Lise Lindstrom was impressive in her newly expanded role as the Färberin (and even distantly reminiscent visually of Barbara Hannigan’s omnipresent Lulu in Christoph Marthaler’s production at this house earlier in the year). She’s a fearlessly committed actress and has a striking stage presence. Her voice is a slow-burning lyrical instrument that can take a while to display its steel, but that only helped give the character the extra humanity that the staging demands.
Relegated to also-ran status, Emily Magee’s Empress perhaps unsurprisingly failed to make anywhere near as strong an impression as she had in the role for Guth’s staging at Covent Garden. There’s never doubting her commitment, though, and her gleaming voice still delivered the goods once it had warmed up. The outstanding performance perhaps came from Andrzej Dobber as Barak. The Polish baritone sang in generous, well-filled phrases and with powerful tone, and he acted with a moving sincerity. Though perhaps not strictly a bass baritone (the big Verdi roles are a speciality), Dobber lacked some richness and warmth of tone, but the voice has a directness and honest beauty—not to mention easy volume—that suit the role well.
Roberto Saccà had all the Emperor’s top notes, but struggled with the cantilena that links them together. Linda Watson, who has often sung the Färberin herself, was a powerful Amme here, although not always one with the necessary verbal incisiveness. Among the smaller roles, Bogdan Baciu’s imposing Geisterbote stood out. Some fine things musically, then, but a disappointing staging from Kriegenburg. 


Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Ottensamer; Berliner Philharmoniker/Jansons

Sibelius, Symphony no. 1 in E minor, Op.39
Weber, Clarinet concerto no. 1 in F minor, Op.73
Bartók, The Miraculous Mandarin, Op.19: suite

Philharmonie, 27 April 2017

The programme booklet gave an immediate clue as to the main linking element of this concert: a clarinet stood proud on the cover. Inside, an essay explored the instrument’s associations with the human voice – distant, longing or longed-for. That is how it appears in the ‘bardic’ solo that opens Sibelius’s First Symphony, it argued, while noting that the dedicatee of Weber’s F minor Concerto was renowned for his voice-like sound and flexibility on the instrument. The girl in Bartòk’s Miraculous Mandarin is embodied – or envoiced – by the clarinet...

[Read the full review at Bachtrack]

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.
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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.
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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.