Saturday, 28 January 2017

Deutsche Oper Berlin: Tannhäuser

27 January 2017

This Tannhäuser performance marked the start of what will be a drawn-out mini Wagnerthon in Berlin. I plan to catch the Deutsche Oper’s Lohengrin next week, then the final revival of its Götz Friedrich Ring and (at the Staatsoper im Schillertheater) Dmitri Tcherniakov’s Parsifal at Easter. Add in the Komische Oper Meistersinger and the Deutsche Oper Parsifal I saw before Christmas, and it means in six months I’ll have seen all the mature Wagner’s operas bar one, Der fliegende Holländer, here in the Hauptstadt—with Parsifal twice.

Tannhäuser (Act 2) at the Deutsche Oper (Photo © Matthias Horn) 

It will be interesting to see how the messages of these works take on new significance as the world—the Anglophone world, specifically—continues its sudden downward spiral into intolerance and insularity. Does feasting on such riches represent escapism, or a small-scale act of resistance, sticking up for art in a world in which it is increasingly threatened?
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It’s difficult to say, and in any case Tannhäuser probably has less to say about politics than the other works I shall be seeing; certainly Kristen Harms’s 2008 production doesn’t probe in that direction. By contrast, the website blurb for Kasper Holten’s Lohengrin, awash with mentions of Putin, promises a ‘timeless political power struggle’. Nevertheless, I couldn’t stop myself, on the day of their joint press conference, wondering about a staging of Tannhäuser with Trump as the errant minstrel and Theresa May as Elisabeth. Perhaps Teresa-without-the-h May could be Venus.

Bad idea: Tannhäuser is hardly one of Wagner’s most likeable characters, but that’s still to do him an enormous disservice. Maybe I should stick with an earlier idea for a Salome with Trump as Herod, Melania as Herodias and Ivanka as the Judean Princess.

Either way, this was a spiritually restorative evening when such a thing was sorely needed. The firm foundation was provided by Donald Runnicles’s conducting (of the Dresden version), instinctive, grand and often viscerally exciting; the flexible, burnished playing of the Deutsche Oper orchestra; and the thrilling singing from the massed chorus and extra chorus.

I failed to catch these forces when they brought this same opera to the BBC Proms in 2013, but couldn’t help draw comparison with the far less solid musical standards at the Royal Opera’s revival of Tim Albery’s production at the end of last season. There really is nothing like an orchestra, such as the Deutsche Oper’s, that plays this repertoire regularly, and under a conductor, such as Runnicles, who has such a natural and instinctive command for the music. And the programme revealed a remarkable statistic: this was the 35th performance of the work at this house since the production was new in late November 2008—a Traviata-esque figure. 

Tannhäuser (Act 1) at the Deutsche Oper (Photo © Matthias Horn) 

There’d been a bit of chopping and changing in the cast, which ended up being led by Robert Dean Smith’s Tannhäuser, reliable and often even elegant in his phrasing—the former quality always a relief in this most taxing of roles, the latter a real luxury. Dramatically he can seem a little tentative, but I suspected his performance here was further held back in that regard by lack of rehearsal—especially in his interactions with Camilla Nyland’s voluptuously sung Venus, where the production also went a little thin on ideas.

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There was a generous, pleasingly round-toned and intelligent Wolfram from James Rutherford, and Ante Jerkunica’s Herman was impressively resonant and imposing, even if I prefer my Wagner basses with a little more granitic focus. The other minstrels were excellent, and Nyland, doubling both lead female roles, was also a moving Elisabeth.

Such double casting has its obvious advantages—pragmatic and dramatic—but Harms’s production didn’t help clarify things when her prostrate Elisabeth simply stood up at the close to sing as Venus. Before that point, there was no shortage of memorable and moving visual spectacle, making use of some highly atmospheric lighting (Bernd Damovsky was responsible for lighting, as well stage and costume designs).

Magical appearances from the bowels of the stage and from the flies are a major feature, effects that are often choreographed with a very good ear for what’s going on in the music. The staging of the Venusburg music, during which a Tannhäuser in armour is lowered into a writhing group of buxom maidens in what might be a vast bubble bath, is probably one of the most successful settings of that music I’ve seen on stage (not, admittedly, saying much), and was all the better for the hint of humour it suggested.

Elsewhere things felt less successful: the arrival of Herman, Wolfram & Co at the end of Act 1 on some very noisy horses on wheels, for example; the questionable comedy medieval hats given to guests for the song contest; the decision to confine Act 3’s chorus to hospital beds. As with Philipp Stözl’s Parsifal at this house, though, nothing actively mitigated us forming our own interpretations, and, importantly, much in the staging served to underline and amplify the extraordinary power of the music—what a fabulous score Tannhäuser is!and the musical performance.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Staatsoper Hamburg: Otello

17 January 2017

It’s not been a great couple of weeks for Calixto Bieito after the Met in New York pulled the plug on his Forza del Destino. His Otello has, however, made its transfer the stage of the Staatsoper in Hamburg in one piece, having been unveiled in in Basel in late 2014. I’m afraid this seemed to be a similar sort of affair to his Forza, though, with a handful of Bieitoisms somewhat half-heartedly applied to Verdi’s final tragic masterpiece.

Calixto Bieito's Otello at Staatsoper Hamburg (Photo © Hans Jörg Michel)
The main prop—a vast harbour-side crane—will arguably have had greater resonance for the Hamburg audience than for that in landlocked Basel, but otherwise neither it nor the rest of Bieito’s ideas seemed terribly well tailored to Otello (although, I should note, it was all strikingly lit by Michael Bauer). 

The chorus became a kind of semi-imprisoned mob, often stumbling to the front of the stage, in dirty tracksuits and amplified by a few semi-naked extras, to stare us down. Otello was a sort of gangster boss, I think, Iago one of his deputies and Desdemona his moll, understandably miffed at having to appear repeatedly at the dockside in a series of her fanciest outfits.  

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Otello’s otherness and nobility were nowhere to be seen, so key threads of the drama—the shocking dissonance between his military prowess and his social insecurity, the sources of Iago’s envy—were missing. Desdemona’s whiter-than-white innocence, a pre-requisite for the tragedy, was never even hinted at, while the director’s now standard recourse to misogynistic violence—though still often theatrically powerful—left a slightly bitter taste. 

And the horror of Desdemona’s treatment at the hands of her husband is already so powerfully portrayed in the work that it’s very difficult for a director to try and underline it without actually undercutting it.

In the first three acts, then, this Otello felt like a bit of a hodge podge, markedly short of the conviction that was always such a Bieito trademark, regardless of what else one thought of his decisions (it was unclear whether he’d been on hand to supervise rehearsals). 

Yet, as the drama itself achieves its most searing focus, Act IV was a great deal better. Svetlana Aksenova, a little frayed and unyielding in the earlier acts, came into her own in Desdemona’s Willow Song and Ave Maria, delivered with real intensity from a platform half way up the crane: first she threatened to jump off, and then, broken, sank down in desperation.

Nadezhda Karyazina (Emilia, left) and Svetlana Aksenova (Desdemona) (Photo © Hans Jörg Michel)

Bieito also had one final trick up his sleeve, as Otello climbed the structure and was then swung out over the orchestra for his final moments. This was a coup, but a pay-off arguably not worth the price of having the whole rest of the drama play out in the thing’s shadow (there was an audible tut when the curtain rose after the interval to reveal nothing had changed on stage; ‘gute Abwechslung,’ someone behind me muttered sarcastically). 

Here, in his final moments, though, was where Marco Berti’s Otello was at his best, his acting honest and heartfelt (an unfortunately unconvincing ‘Urgh!’ as he expired notwithstanding). Before that, his performance was frustrating: loud, unlovely and lumpily phrased. It’s a terrific voice in many ways, trumpety and ringing, just a shame this performance remained musically and dramatically so rudimentary.

Claudio Sgura (Iago) and Marco Berti (Otello) (Photo © Hans Jörg Michel)

There was something a great deal more sophisticated from Claudio Sgura’s liquid-toned and sly Iago, even if the baritone didn’t quite command the stage as the production clearly wanted him to—and he was, perhaps unsurprisingly, out-belted by the force-12 Berti in ‘Si, pel ciel’. 

Markus Nykänen made a strong impression as Cassio, but the chorus occasionally sounded underpowered, and Paolo Carignani’s conducting was often disappointingly lukewarm—not a great deal of fuoco di anything coming from the pit. And ultimately there was far too little fire in the belly of Bieito’s production too: he pulled it back somewhat for the finale, but too much of the rest just felt rehashed and reheated.