Friday, 20 October 2017

Theater an der Wien: Wozzeck

17 October 2017

When asked what the essence of Wozzeck is in his booklet interview, Robert Carsen answers that ‘It presents a great hopelessness.’ His view of the work, as presented in his new production for the Theater an der Wien, is unremittingly bleak then, made all the more so for its military minimalist aesthetic.

Florian Boesch as Wozzeck at the Theater an der Wien (Photo © Werner Kmetitsch)
Gideon Davey’s set consists of three camouflage walls encompassing the stage, those on either side with multiple high openings. Wires slung between them allow for sheets of material—also camouflage—to be efficiently pulled across to delineate the space and cover up changes of the largely minimal scenery.

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When the space is opened up, we get the sense (amplified by the characteristically atmospheric lighting by Carsen and Peter van Praet) of exaggerated perspective, especially effective as we watch Wozzeck drown in the blue-green distance. As you’d expect from Carsen, it’s a production that has a few moments of such poetry, of simple means creating powerful effects.

But Berg’s opera and his version of Büchner’s brilliantly drawn characters don’t always benefit, it seems to me, from the conceptual open spaces of this particular aesthetic. The costumes see women and even children, as well as the men, kitted out in military garb: here is a uniform world without contrasts; we could be anywhere in time or place in the last half century. 

There’s no flinching in the portrayal of this rogue’s gallery: the Captain (a sturdy, forthright John Daszak) is relentlessly hectoring, the Doctor (an impressive Stefan Cerny) relentlessly cruel, the Tambourmajor (Aleš Briscein, less heroic than many in the role) charmless and unremittingly sadistic. 

The misery of Lise Lindstrom’s strongly and often beautifully sung Marie is complete—and requires the occasional alleviation through drugs—and one gets little sense of any joy whatsoever derived from her child, portrayed with a heartbreaking sense of isolation at this performance by Samuel Wegleitner. The only hint of respite in this world of misery comes in Benjamin Hulett’s relatively breezy Andres.

Lise Lindstrom as Marie (© Werner Kmetitsch)
At the heart of it all is an impressive first Wozzeck from Florian Boesch, who, as we know from his Lieder-singing, is never afraid to put expressionistic directness first; vocal beauty—and this is not a voice of honeyed tones and rich colours in any case—is subordinated to dramatic truth. Unlike with his Lieder-singing, though, here he seemed to have been encouraged to draw from just one side of his broad expressive palette. 

There were a handful of moments of hushed intimacy, admittedly, but a predominance of raw, visceral roar. This was Wozzeck as beefy brute, his animalistic qualities further emphasised at the start of his scene with the Doctor: he sits downstage with his back to us blithely producing a stool sample, wiping his bare backside before delivering his offering for inspection.

As a demonstration of the character’s humiliation and loss of dignity it was undeniably effective. And I won’t forget in a hurry the moment, at the height of Wozzeck’s paranoia, that Boesch made his way to the front of the stage to eyeball us and unleash the full power of his voice. But reducing the character to an animal risked reducing us in the audience to viewers of some sort of nature documentary rather than spectators of a drama—and a deeply human one at that.

Aleš Briscien (Tambourmajor) and Florian Boesch (Wozzeck) (Photo © Werner Kmetitsch)
Wozzeck’s murder of Marie, conveyed with unblinking directness, was shocking; but neither that nor his final stumble through a field of bodies (dead, one presumed, but it wasn’t entirely clear) moved me on an emotional level. The child’s forlorn ‘Hopp, hopp’ at the close, a rifle repurposed as hobbyhorse, was also less touching than it can be in stagings that cover more of the spectrum between the human and the animal. In focusing powerfully on the dehumanising effects of military life, Carsen was making an important point; but he also, it seemed to me, lost some of the work’s richness, blunting its tragedy. 

Arguably the work’s richness was also what was primarily lost in the orchestral performance, with Leo Hussain conducting a new version of the score by Eberhard Kloke—largely a matter of compression of the instrumentation so that the Wiener Symphoniker could be squeezed into the Theater an der Wien’s modest pit. 

Sinewy and raw, conducted with a powerful sense of focus, it nevertheless complemented Carsen’s forceful vision wella vision given yet greater force by  fearlessly committed performances from the Arnold Schoenberg Choir and the well-drilled cast.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Berliner Philharmoniker: The Cunning Little Vixen

Philharmonie, Berlin, 12 October 2017

Simon Rattle has over recent years established himself as something like the Staatsoper’s resident Janáček conductor here in Berlin, having been at the helm of performances of both From the House of the Dead and Kátya Kabanová during that company’s stint at the Schillertheater. Here, though, was a chance to hear him put his own orchestra – or one of them, at least – through its paces with the work that is generally agreed to have put the Czech composer on the map in Germany.

[read the full review at Bachtrack]

Friday, 6 October 2017

Staatsoper Berlin: 'Zum Augenblicke sagen: Verweile doch!' – Szenen aus Goethes Faust

3 October 2017

The Staatsoper unter den Linden on the night of its reopening

So, finally... seven years and over €400m later, the Staatsoper unter den Linden has reopened. At least temporarily – it closes again for a couple of months after this week’s celebrations before the season kicks off again for good in December.

These reopening celebrations were supposed to have centred around a new Saul by Wolfgang Rihm, cancelled when the composer fell seriously ill. After scouting around for an alternative Intendant Jürgen Flimm plumped for Schumann’s Faust-Szenen, bolstered by segments of Goethe’s play...

[read the full review at Bachtrack]

Staatsoper Hamburg: Der Freischütz

1 October 2017

There has been something of a flurry of new Freischütz stagings in my adopted corner of Germany over the last few years, with recent new productions in Berlin, Dresden and Leipzig. Of these I only saw the latter, earlier this year, but I can now add the 1999 Hamburg staging by Leipzig’s former Intendant, Peter Konwitschny, to the list—a list whose UK section includes only concert performances.  

(l. to r.) Ännchen. Agathe and viola-playing Samiel in Peter Konwitschny's Hamburg Freischütz (Photo © Jörn Kipping)

Now something of a classic (the next performance after the matinée I attended was the 50th in the house), Konwitschny’s staging is getting now getting its final run at this address. I’m very glad to have seen it, for it’s a characteristically intelligent, questing and mischievous, iconoclastic affair.

Max’s insecurities are the basis of the whole plot, but are too easily explained away as acceptable in traditional world of thrusting horn-calls and the casual killing of innocent beasts. Not here, though, where the production, at least as seen on this revival, exposes and almost mocks his weakness. He is unsure and jittery throughout, memorably harangued by a confrontational group of motley stage musicians in the opening scene; too easily led astray; more than ever, one feels, undeserving of his last-minute reprieve.

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The focus, emotional and dramatic, is put squarely onto Agathe, played serenely here by the terrific Iulia Maria Dan, and sung in a voice that offers exciting hints of the dramatic through its velvety lyric surface—this member of the Hamburg ensemble is definitely a name to watch.

The character seems better than the situation she finds herself in, not least because Konwitschny, in a characteristic fourth wall-breaking touch, reveals the Hermit (a resonant Tigran Martirossian) as a suave audience member watching her, with a mixture of paternal concern and infatuation, from the front row of the stalls. 

The opera itself, in as much as it exists here as a self-contained work, is shown as coming to a close before the Hermit’s final intervention, at which point a puzzled stage manager tries to work out what’s going on before all the cast and chorus come back onto the stage for a celebratory glass of bubbly.

The primary feature of Gabriele Koerbl’s set is a elevator door, stage right, the indicator lights above which hint at mysterious ascents and descents, including, for the Wolf’s Glen, to the realm of Samiel. (S)he is represented in that scene by a suave Otto Katzameier, but turns up as a slinky viola-playing she-devil (Naomi Seiler) in Ännchen’s ‘Einst träumte meine sel’gen Base’—a touch that was strangely reminiscent of the violin-playing ‘angel’ at the close of Christoph Marthaler’s Lulu here earlier in the year.

Katharina Konradi’s sparky, mischievous Ännchen was excellent here as throughout, and the four Bridesmaid’s deserve a special mention, too, each minutely characterised as they presented their song as a nervous series of individual performances.

The Wolf's Glen scene is itself brilliantly realised, too, Samiel’s voice resonating through speakers as Caspar manufactures the magic bullets above a television, with moral support from malfunctioning mechanical owl. Whether deliberately or not, the scene also became reminiscent of Mime cooking up his broth for Siegfried, as seen at least in many recent stagings, meaning that I heard forest murmurings in Weber’s score that I’d not really noticed before. Malfunctioning, sinister technology is present throughout, even in the interval, where the theatre's foyers are filled with the continued eerie tick tock that brings the second act to a disquieting conclusion.

As a repertoire revival there were some rough edges musically here and there, but conductor Christof Prick paced the performance well. Burkhard Fritz seemed to be having a bit of an off day as Max, too, but his underpowered vocal performance was arguably of a piece with Konwitschny’s characterisation of the role—a characterisation that, along with its corollary in the elevation of Agathe, was central to the director’s compelling rethinking of the whole piece.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Staatsoper Hamburg: Parsifal

30 September 2017

Before being persuaded to direct the Ring for LA Opera at the beginning of the decade, Achim Freyer had apparently decided to abandon directing opera to concentrate on painting. Now, however, he also gives a new Parsifal. And he’s staging Hänsel und Gretel at the newly refurbished Staatsoper unter den Linden in Berlin in December as well—that glorious work by a composer, Humperdinck, who was of course intimately bound up with Parsifals early history in Bayreuth. 

Parsifal at Staatsoper Hamburg, with Wolfgang Koch (centre) as Amfortas (Photo © Hans Jörg Michel)

In Hamburg his take on the Master’s great Bühnenweihfestspiel is a serious, often enchanting piece of work, and a staging that is refreshing for its patience, its willingness to take its time and its singlemindedness. His set, a dark semi-circle with multiple walkways set behind a gauze stretched right over the orchestra pit, feels like its own self-contained galaxy.

Numbers and hieroglyph-like objects are dotted about it as if set free from both weight and significance; an adjustable mirrored semi-circle hovers above, as does a big metal structure resembling the mixing attachment of a food processor.

Kwangchul Youn as Gurnemanz (Photo © Hans Jörg Michel))

Swirls and various Parsifalian keywords are projected (video by Jakob Klaffs and Hugo Reiss) at various moments onto the gauze, though were difficult to take in from my seat in row 4 of the stalls. The players, their expressions frozen in semi-grotesque face paint, drift in and out during the Prelude and seem barely to be in command of their own destinies thereafter.

Kundry flies in, with the help of naïve stage effects (not always fully realised), at her various entries; Parsifal bounces in and out and rolls about like some malfunctioning children’s entertainer; Amfortas, stretched across some sort of yoke, his body represented by a painted cloth, is manhandled from side to side by a couple of hooded retainers hovering in a state of semi-invisibility. Titurel consists, in two dimensions, of little more than two arms, a wheelchair and what, to me at least, looked like stubby telescope.

Gurnemanz, a crude papier-mâché face suspended in a haphazardly spiralling frame above his head, glides around with little sense of purpose. Squires and grail knights arm themselves in moments of threat with arbitrary objects: an oversize spanner, a stuffed rabbit, a dismembered arm. At the climax of the grail ceremony a small white figure with oversized head and an underlit lampshade for a skirt makes its way slowly across the stage.

On one level it’s a magical mystery tour de force from Freyer, who works with the music, surfing its slow-moving waves to sometimes hypnotic effect. There are plenty of telling little details, too, not least in the grotesque costume for Vladimir Baykov’s powerfully-sung, leering Klingsor: an enormous tie covers a bright red patch in his groin, the site of the self-mutilation we see acted out wittily—if that’s the word—at the appropriate point Gurnemanz’s Act 1 narration. I liked the bulbous, punky voluptuousness of his Flower Maidens, too, who manage to combine, like so much of the production, playful irreverence with an underlying seriousness. 

Claudia Mahnke (Kundry) and Vladimir Baykov (Klingsor) (Photo © Hans Jörg Michel)

As the show progresses, though, it becomes a case of diminishing returns. Having cast everything into a state weightlessness, Freyer has no interest, it seems, in tethering it back onto anything as the gravity of the final act’s drama kicks in. 

The first half of that act, with only the merest hint, through Sebastian Alphons’s lighting, of Easter greenery, resorts to a somewhat conventional rehearsal of Wagner’s stage directions. And Wolfgang Koch, sounding slightly under par, was unable to give specific meaning to his suffering as a bedraggled, lank-hared Amfortas. With the action never having been allowed too fully take root, the final redemption amounted simply to a further clearing of the decks, with the set pulled down and whisked away. We are left with an emptiness both spatial and conceptual.

Andreas Schager (Parsifal) in Klingsor's magic garden (Photo © Hans Jörg Michel)
Part of the sense of dissatisfaction here might also have been down to Kent Nagano’s conducting. The orchestral playing had some wobbles, but I enjoyed his streamlined but largely persuasive account of the first two acts—are the conductor’s plans for a period-instrument Ring with Concerto Köln already affecting his approach? The third act, however, felt almost evasive in its swiftness. The winding lines of the Prelude came across as dogged, while elsewhere things remained somewhat earthbound, without conjuring up enough of sense of anything, however difficult to define, being at stake.

None of this helped the cast, either. Kwangchul Youn’s Gurnemanz provided superbly resonant and authoritative foundation for the drama, but  was left unable, in the circumstances, to plumb the depths in Act 3, or really to make much of the text. 

Andreas Schager (Parsifal) at the close of Act 3 (Photo © Hans Jörg Michel)
Andreas Schager’s Parsifal, dressed in asymmetric black-and-white, sang powerfully and acted, as usual, with total commitment, but both he and Claudia Mahnke’s impressive Kundry (rich in the lower register, seductive in the middle if stretched at the top) struggled to convey their passions and sufferings through the make-up and, in Mahnke’s case, industrial dreadlocks.

In a statement in the programme, Freyer talks, apparently unironically, of being obliged to save the essential works of our time from the mistakes of interpretation. That represents quite a lofty stance, and what he’s offered has its own special beauty and conviction. It doesn’t, however, really offer the compelling alternative he seems to be after. 

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Deutsche Oper Berlin: Lucia di Lammermoor

17 September 2017

There’s been a few grumblings around recently about operas being set in museums. Chicago’s new Elektra, if one’s to trust the reviews, is a case in point. Closer to the land of Walter Scott’s Lammermoor, one thinks back to John Fulljames’s faintly ridiculous Harris Tweed-sponsored Donna del Lago at Covent Garden. I saw a few more examples mentioned on Twitter, too.

Pretty Yende as Lucia at the Deutsche Oper (Photo © Bettina Stöß)
The Deutsche Oper’s Lucia, however, is a genuine museum piece. It dates from 1980, but Filippo Sanjust’s designs seem already to have been deliberately old-fashioned even then. Tromp l’oeil curtains frame the stage, and a drop curtain features an illustration of a waify stray with windswept hair and white dress rushing across some barren landscape.

The stage itself for the first two scenes is pretty rudimentary: a backdrop with a distant castle, a couple of unimpressive two-dimensional outcrops of rock, one featuring a static waterfall. Things get a little more concrete in subsequent scenes as we get into some impressive-looking interiors, but there’s no escaping the essential fustiness of it all. 

The costumes continue the trend, with flouncy frocks and ringlets for the ladies and, for the men, austere period outfits whose manifold details, I suspect, could be named only by historians of dress. (There were hints of tartan, but at least no anachronistic kilts.)

The edition used, too, was a period piece, with the loss of both the Enrico-Edgardo scene at the start of Act 3 (we went straight into the ‘D’immenso giubilo’ chorus) and a final scene that began with ‘Tombe degli avi miei’. Fans of the glass harmonica will have been a little disappointed, too, since Lucia’s mad scene was accompanied by the then traditional flute (excellently played, though, by Robert Lerch). Ivan Repušić conducted straightforwardly and dutifully, and certainly could have done more to enliven the recits.

Then again, with direction at the basic end of the spectrum – it was notable how Pretty Yende’s Lucia manoeuvred herself to prime centre-stage position for the start of ‘Quando repito in estasi’ – this was Donizetti less as drama than as bel canto showcase. It was also a showcase for the 2011 edition of Plácido Domingo’s Operalia competition: Yende and her Edgardo, René Barbera, shared the top prize that year. 

Happily they both delivered the goods. Yende’s voice is pearly and seductive, bright but never strident, and beautifully controlled. It also extends with apparent ease right to the very top of the range – she tossed in a few top notes beyond the standard embellishments. Dramatically she doesn’t necessarily plumb the depths, and I wondered even if her irrepressible likability as a performer and the inherent sunny optimism of the voice actually detracted from the tragedy. I suspect that a strong directorial hand in a less somnambulant production would have helped a great deal in that regard, though.

Barbera was similarly left to deliver a stock dramatic performance. But it’s a pleasingly clean voice, light in both colour and size, and he sang with real elegance, focus and lovely legato. His great final scene was beautifully delivered – with some fine work from the orchestral soloists. There was an impressive, suitably unstinting Enrico from Noel Bouley, a Deutsche Oper ensemble member with a notably stentorian top range. Riccardo Zanellato deserves a mention, too, for his consoling tones as Raimondo, about the only even half-decent male character in the whole show.

Pretty Yende as Lucia at the Deutsche Oper (Photo © Bettina Stöß)
The last production I saw of this work had been Katie Mitchell’s for the Royal Opera House in London, a staging I disliked but which was at least interesting for attempting to give the opera’s heroine some agency, to make her more than simply a passive victim. This production, though, presents her as just that, in pretty frocks that only pick up the merest hint of blood in the dainty off-stage murder of her husband. 

It underlines the irony, too, that the character’s passivity was traditionally contrasted with editions of the score that placed her musically centre-stage, at the expense, particularly, of Edgardo. As such, though, this museum piece does at least offer an interesting glimpse into the operatic past. It also just let its cast get on with it, offering a great showcase for some outstanding singers of the present – and future.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Gundula Janowitz: 80th birthday Interview

‘Is it halfway drinkable?’ Gundula Janowitz interrupts herself to check I’m happy with the tea she’s made, particularly worried that it might not be up to an Englishman’s exacting standards. Go back an hour earlier, and I’m hovering nervously outside in a quiet street in Vienna’s Wieden district, south of the famous Naschmarkt and west of Schloss Belvedere, plucking up the courage to press the ‘Janowitz’ buzzer...

[read the full interview on the Gramophone website]

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Bayerische Staatsoper: Die Frau ohne Schatten

2 July 2017

In his semi-serioso “Ten Golden Rules” for conducting dating from the early 1920s, Richard Strauss suggested that Salome and Elektra should be conducted “as if they were by Mendelssohn: Fairy Music”. He didn’t make any similar public pronouncements about Die Frau ohne Schatten, which is, of course, Fairy Music, if not exactly in the Mendelssohnian mould...

Read the full review at Bachtrack

Monday, 29 May 2017

Staatsoper Berlin: Don Carlo

26 May 2017

Any opportunity to see Don Carlo(s) is difficult to resist, and happily it’s possible in Berlin to allay any sorrow at missing the Royal Opera House’s latest revival with the fact that both the Staatsoper and the Deutsche Oper have it on their Spielpläne this season. This was the penultimate performance at the former, and I'm already eyeing dates at the latter—although Anja Harteros’s planned appearances there in the Deutsche Oper’s Verdi-Tage next May are likely to also be on several people’s radar already.

At the Staatsoper we had the standard four-act Italian version. Philipp Himmelmann’s 2004 production is an austere, concentrated affair with one main idea, as far as I could tell, that it sticks to with admirable persistence: domesticating the grand world-historical forces that define the drama (or at least as Verdi and Schiller portray it).

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We opened then with a tableau of an awkward family meal—and this is certainly a family with a few reasons for awkwardness—that reminded me in passing of the opening tableau of Philipp Stölzl’s Forza del destino in Munich. This table remained central throughout the evening, the other elements of the drama often having to work around it.

Eating, drinking and even ironing played a constant role: Elisabeth feeds the Comtesse D’Aremberg a slice of consolatory cake during ‘Non pianger, mia compagna’; in a clever little touch we get a hint of Philip’s philistinism as he merrily over-salts a dish before tasting it; the whole evening climaxes with a distraught Elisabeth having to pour tea for the Grand Inquisitor.

Eboli is perhaps most interestingly developed in this new take on the piece, portrayed as a voracious vamp in the Veil Song, at the head of what looks like the militant wing of St Trinians. She often appears in striking silhouette at the back of the stage—Johannes Leiacker’s set, helped by Davy Cunningham’s lighting, makes powerful use of sliding panels—and features, to powerful effect, at the start of the introduction to ‘Ella giammai m’amo’, finishing off a clearly joyless sexual encounter with Philip.
Marina Prudenskaya performs the role magnificently, turning in an impressively agile Veil Song and an impassioned, powerful ‘O don fatale’ and throwing herself gamely into all the challenges of the production. René Pape’s Philip also gains in complexity as a character from the encounter at the start of his big scene. He sings in powerful, smooth phrases throughout, but achieves touching melancholic grandeur here, the scene leading into a compelling encounter with Mikhail Kazakov’s implacable, bitingly sung Grand Inquisitor.

Fabio Sartori’s Carlo is tirelessly sung, offering real ringing power if the occasional rough edge. Massimo Cavalletti (one of two late replacement Posas) has a pleasingly grainy and Italiniate sound. He was a little inconsistent at the top of the voice early on, but settled down for a potent account of the death scene. Lianna Haroutounian remains a very decent Elisabeth and sings with commitment and, especially in the impressively focused top of the voice, technical security. but for me doesn’t quite command the regal quality—vocally or theatrically—that the role demands.

Similarly, Massimo Zanetti’s conducting here failed for some of the evening to capture the dark grandeur of Verdi’s score, occasionally feeling a little efficient. There was some terrific playing from the Staatskapelle (to which one can add the pleasure of hearing this opera in the relatively modest Schillertheater), though, and Zenetti’s account seemed to gather accumulated weight as it went along.

Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim: Schubert Symphonies II

Franz Schubert
Symphony no. 5 in B flat major, D.485
Symphony no. 4 in C minor, "Tragic", D 417
Symphony no. 6 in C major, D.589

Pierre Boulez Saal, 25 May 2017

There are pros and cons when it comes to the programming of cycles. And sometimes doing so seems little more than an excuse to smuggle in yet more performances of works we already hear too often under the cloak of completism. But if Schubert’s final two symphonies hardly need a helping hand, the first six rare visitors to the concert hall in my experience. Daniel Barenboim’s Schubert cycle with his Staatskapelle Berlin at the Boulezsaal, which reached its midway point with this second concert, is making as eloquent a case as possible for them.

[Read the full review at Bachtrack]

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Deutsche Oper Berlin: L'elisir d'amore

23 May 2017

Repertory houses are full of surprises, or at least gems hidden away in their Spielpläne. In the autumn it was Anja Harteros’s Tosca for a couple of performances at the Deutsche Oper. And here it was the first of two performances of L’elisir d’amore with Roberto Alagna and Aleksandra Kurzak as the lovers (the second is on May 27).

L'elisir d'amore at the Deutsche Oper (photo © Monika Rittershaus)

It was a performance to restore some faith in humanity on a day when such a thing was sorely needed—an opera, too, that in its own joyous, honest and moving way, celebrates life and love, as well as humour, mischief and the qualities of a good (or even bad) Bordeaux.

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Irina Brook’s staging does a pretty good job of communicating all that, despite rather than because of its main Konzept. It sees Adina recast as the leader of a travelling troupe of actors (think a female Canio, without the temper) that is putting on a dramatic performance of the Tristan and Isolde story. Noëlle Ginefri’s set consists of a rickety stage, surrounded by the troupe’s trailers. It’s all kind of modernish dress (costumes by Sylvie Martin-Hyszka), but it’s difficult to tell—many of the chorus mill around in their medieval Cornish outfits, and this far into the Italian countryside clearly no one’s up with the main trends of the fashion world.

Some of the troupe warm up before the show begins, and there are a couple of times when they rehearse during the evening, before, at the close, Adina and Nemorino take to the stage in costume—presumably as the ill-fated Cornish couple—at the close. The Tristan references are of course a clever little joke that Felice Romani took from Eugène Scribe’s libretto for Le Philtre, one given even greater piquancy by Wagner’s subsequent treatment of the subject, but Brook seems to take it onto another meta-level that Donizetti’s little opera can’t quite sustain.

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It also raises questions. Nemorino seems to be some sort of cleaner, but does he travel around with the actors? Is he there to clean this rustic piazza? Do Belcore and his regiment follow them around as well? Wouldn’t a troupe of cynical and, by definition, well travelled actors prove a tough audience for Dulcamara’s shtick, or be unimpressed by the magic, here, of his assistant, ‘Nick’?

I didn’t let such questions detain me for long: they and the Konzept itself could happily be tidied away into the background and ignored, not least because of the sheer sense of fun brought to the piece. And at least the production did allow for plenty of impressive tomfoolery from Alagna, who threw himself into his characterisation with infectious glee. His singing, too, was filled with sunlight. The tone is a little looser these days, and he seemed to have a bit of a frog in his throat in ‘Una furtive lagrima’, but it’s still a voice of rare Italianate warmth and a pleasure to hear, especially in this lighter repertoire—although he did unleash a Manrico-esque top note or two, and occasionally wandered a little from the the conductor's tempo.

L'elisir d'amore at the Deutsche Oper (photo © Monika Rittershaus)

Kurzak’s Adina is hardly less enjoyable, her bright, creamy timbre employed in a performance of quick-witted verve and bounce, her coloratura despatched with applomb. Her new role in this production risked turning her into an unlikeable diva. But she struck that balance well, retaining more than enough of the character’s original charm. Her ‘Prendi, per me sei libero’, for me far and away the most beautiful moment in the score, was exquisitely done—and it was accompanied with the utmost sensitivity by the orchestra under Moritz Gnann, whose conducting was a model of bel canto fluidity and flexibility throughout.

Mikheil Kiria was a terrific Dulcamara, mixing clean articulation with a bright, lively baritone; and Thomas Lehman was suitably strutting and handsome-sounding as Belcore. Alexandra Hutton’s Giannetta was a constantly vivid presence, not least in gamely leading a couple of dance routines.

A few things to argue with in the production then—not least its basic premise—but this was a gentle, joyous and memorable L’elisir, in which everyone on stage seemed to be having at least as much fun as I was.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Oper Leipzig: Cinq-Mars

20 May 2017

You’d be forgiven for never having heard of Cinq-Mars – either Gounod’s 1877 opera or the historical character who gives the work its title. The 11th rarity to be revived by the Centre de la musique française at Palazzetto BruZane, and recorded with their support, it now follows Felicien David’s Herculaneum (staged at Wexford last year) in also receiving a first production since the 19th century. Oper Leipzig, whose Generalmusikdirektor and Intendant, Ulf Schirmer, conducted the recording, has done it proud...

[Read the full review at Bachtrack]

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Andsnes; Berliner Philharmoniker/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.